Double Duty

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.

In the Soviet Union, where he went in 1919, Serge would get into more trouble for befriending anarchists (and Mensheviks, and theosophists, and assorted ‘reactionary but honest’ persons) and rescuing them from the Cheka. Never one to disown past debts, he was the only Bolshevik to attend Kropotkin’s funeral. But back in 1913, carrying the buck for the French anarchists in the prison of La Santé, he already knew where his future lay: ‘What had preserved me from their linear thinking, their cold anger, their pitiless vision of society, was, ever since childhood, my contact with a world imbued with tenacious hope and rich in human values, that of the Russians.’

The astonishing thing about Serge is the way he clung to that hope during the decades to come, saw a certain understated humour in the horror, and kept faith, almost fetishistically, with the notion of human progress. Perhaps the only moment of unequivocal happiness in a life of disappointments occurred in 1919, after the failed Barcelona uprising and another spell in prison: a short moment walking across a freezing moonlit bridge from Finland into the Soviet Union, ‘choked with joy’. Minutes later, he picked up a copy of Severnaya Kommuna, the organ of the Petrograd Soviet, and read a rant by Zinoviev in praise of the Party monopoly on power which derided the ‘fallacious democratic liberties demanded by the counter-revolution’. Serge smothered his misgivings – War Communism required many allowances to be made – but he knew how addictive the habit of a single truth could become: it was one of the ‘perils within us’ he warned about in his massive output for French radical and Communist journals such as Clarté. Not a word of his was ever published in the Soviet Union.

Having missed the heroic period, he saw the Revolution sink from one low to the next, but believed enough in the essential social transformation it had wrought to think it worth challenging its incompetence, bureaucratisation and insanity, inside and (after 1928) outside the Party, to the end of his life. Odd-jobbing for the Comintern as a journalist, publicist, secret agent and translator, Serge became isolated in neither-nors and both-ands. Neither reaction nor blind acquiescence; both commitment and critique. His formula of ‘double duty’ – that a revolution must be defended not only against its enemies, but also against the germs of destruction it carries within – was extended in later life to a triple duty, the balance between ‘the intransigence resulting from firm convictions, the maintenance of a critical spirit with regard to those convictions, and the respect for any differing convictions’. A commendable principle anywhere, as outrageous as it was futile in Soviet conditions; it led to bizarre scenes as early as 1921 when Serge took aside select foreign delegates to the Third Congress of the Communist International and tried to tell them about the errors of the regime. Hopes of the Western working class coming to the rescue were dashed with the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. Serge was in Berlin, sent by the Comintern to analyse the Revolution, which he did often, from an ultra-Left perspective, in the French edition of Inprekorr. By 1926 he was back in the USSR to fight against Stalin’s hijack of the Party and the invasion of the parvenus. By 1929, there were only three Oppositionists still at liberty in that country: Andrés Nin, the founder of the POUM; Trotsky’s first wife, Alexandra Bronstein; and Serge, who dodged deportation until 1933.

Sometimes it seems as if the main virtue of this overly technical biography is to send the reader back to the Memoirs and other texts, since the book only takes off when Weissman quotes Serge’s superior prose. But there are intricate details, notably about the dramas of exile politics, that are not in the memoirs. Late 1930s Europe was awash with Soviet agents posing as defectors and born-again revolutionaries, with orders to pick off Oppositionists, Trotskyists or one another. The little band of refugees flailed wildly about to find the agents. Serge himself, who had been released from the physical hardships and intellectual comradeships of three years’ internal exile in Orenburg by the efforts of a very few French supporters, was regarded as dodgy: would Stalin really have let him go to agitate against Communism?

The ceaseless intrigue, the assisted demise of the Spanish Republic and the dogmatism of the Fourth International left Serge as isolated in Europe as he had been in the USSR after Stalin’s accession. He was boycotted by Popular Front as well as Communist journals (at one point all he had was the left-Catholic Esprit), and his new fiction remained unpublished, too hot for the mainstream and too tepid for the rest. Orwell’s best efforts could not get him a forum in England. After an initial exchange of flatteries, he even came under fire from Trotsky as a sermoniser and ally of the ‘confusionists’: ‘When we evaluate from a Marxian standpoint the vacillations of a disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectual, that seems to him an assault on his individuality.’ Serge, deeply hurt by the public tirades from the man who had, after Lenin, been his hero, refused to answer back. He recorded later that the problems had begun when, with ex-Communists Sneevliet and Vereeken, he stood up to defend the Catalan POUM at a conference of the Fourth International in Amsterdam in 1937. He left depressed to find that Trotskyism was ‘a sectarian movement, directed by manoeuvres from above, and afflicted by all the mental depravations we had fought against in Russia’. Le Vieux was becoming the manipulator of a new personality cult, and he and his partisans seemed incapable of dialogue. ‘The maddening atmosphere of persecution in which they lived – as I did – inclined them to persecution mania and to the exercise of persecution.’

The nuances of that remark are unusual for a revolutionary of the time, but Serge had studied Freud and Nietzsche alongside Marx and Dostoevsky. In a precocious attempt to dovetail Marxism with a sort of de-eroticised psychoanalysis, he psychologised the Revolution itself, examining, for instance, the articulation between power and fear. The deep ramifications of the psyche were as important to Serge as those of history; both were essential counterweights to myopic or flighty ‘interests of the moment’. But it was only in his literary output – seven novels and two volumes of poetry, plus the marvellous Memoirs – that he could develop his perception of these complex laws, and explore the paradoxes inside himself. The great failing of Weissman’s biography is her denial of Serge’s wholeheartedness as a novelist. ‘Writing, for Serge, was something to do only when one was unable to fight,’ she claims, and then purely with a ‘mission’ to make sense of the Revolution. It is Serge’s curse that his two claims to fame have always detracted from one another. Militants have found the storytelling wimpish; to the literary, it isn’t sufficiently detached from the external world to rate as more than propaganda.

But literary and political activity were an indissoluble double duty. In 1925, writing about the possibility of a ‘proletarian literature’, Serge had passionately denied that it could ever come about by decree; art was an end, not a means for the overthrow of capitalism, and it would flower when a higher form of human life was achieved in ‘the affirmation of the superior energies: love, intelligence and the will to create’. This, he was almost alone in maintaining, would take generations of stops, deviations and new starts. A few years later, he had run out of patience. He would experiment by mixing the best of the bourgeois tradition with the enhanced consciousness of the post-Revolutionary ‘new man’.

An article by Richard Greeman – who, with Peter Sedgwick, began the Serge revival by translating some of his work during the 1960s, and is preparing a biography of his own – locates Serge’s literary Damascus in two experiences of death, one political, the other physical, that led to something like a spiritual rebirth. The first came with his expulsion from the Party early in 1928; the second weeks later, when after a short imprisonment he nearly died of an intestinal occlusion. In the Memoirs, Serge recalls that delirium gave way to a ‘calm, rich inner clarity . . . “If by chance I survive, I must hurry to finish the books I’ve started, I must write, write . . .”’ It was a compulsion to achieve something durable, beyond the ordinary limits of the self, he says in the Carnets, because writing is a search for ‘polypersonality’.

Some people find the Memoirs and Carnets frustrating for their lack of personal material: almost no mention of the three wives, one of whom was driven mad by the tensions of the last years in Russia, and not much more on the son he was rather proud of. (Arriving in Belgium in 1936, although he had known only socialist privations, the young Vlady was flatly unable to comprehend the appeal of private property.) The Bouquins edition of the Memoirs (2001) censors, as most do, Serge’s prolific points of suspension – the provisional, the unsaid – but it does give you the bits he crossed out: usually too lyrical, or vainglorious, or too revealing, as in one crucial childhood episode. For two years, between the ages of six and eight, he was punished for all his sly cousin Sylvie’s mischief, begging in tears to be forgiven, until at last he became sure of his evidence against her and blurted it out, regaining the parents’ trust. ‘I had steadfastly resisted evil and delivered myself from it.’ As an adult he took a great deal more undeserved blame; he was never so publicly, almost Biblically, vindicated, but he often betrays a pardonable satisfaction in being proved right. There’s a struggle with pride, too, in his claim that ‘individual existences – starting with my own – only interest me as a function of the great collective life’; he tried to bear witness from the viewpoint of some ‘we’ he reckoned to be ‘more general and more truthful’. Only in speaking of others, or in fiction, does he indulge his eye for comedy, individuality, weakness, variety.

The hundreds of thumbnail portraits in the Memoirs are swift and vivid. Gorky’s head was ‘the ordinary head of a man of the people, bony and dented, almost ugly with its jutting cheekbones and wide, thin mouth, the nose splayed and pointed like a bloodhound’s’. The French Communist Henri Barbusse ‘had a tall body, thin and wilting, topped by a diminutive, waxy, hollowed head, with the spare lips of the forbearing man’. Like cartoons, they have an undertone of moral physiognomy. There are flaccid mouths, piggy eyes, sensitive hands. Serge is a willing hater; his villains are the mean, the venal, the vain, the brutal, the unthinking, the self-satisfied; but his curios-ity and compassion undermine his judgment and make him a more successful novelist than politician. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948), even Stalin is sympathetically represented as the lonely victim of his own power.

Three books written in the relative leisure of deportation were confiscated by the GPU. (When Serge complained to a genial secret service man about the disappearance of certified manuscripts posted from the borders of Kazakhstan to Romain Rolland, he replied: ‘It’s shocking how badly the postal system works. And then you say we exaggerate when we uncover sabotage!’) Of that middle period only the poetry remains, because Serge had memorised it; it’s said he could recite whole classics by heart, and the fine detail of the Memoirs, for someone who repeatedly lost all his possessions and papers, is quite staggering. All the surviving novels were written under duress of some sort. Hunted, with no time to revise, he soon adopted the habit of completing fragments that could immediately be rushed abroad. This partly accounts for the lack of narrative drive and the prevalence of free-floating set-pieces: a character’s consciousness, a mass action scene, a stalking straight out of film noir, a philosophical argument, a mysterious landscape. This many-centred structure also derives from his search for a modern, socialist fiction that could set aside the self-absorption of the individual hero; the kind of generous, imaginative realism the Revolution might have fomented if all its talent had not been physically or psychologically destroyed. Serge’s novels scan a vast, vibrant social background dominated by a group of finely drawn figures, some recurring from book to book; these embody strands of collective experience, yet are also composites of real people. Besides the Russian novel, Balzac and Dos Passos are among the influences he acknowledged.

The language itself is not ‘modern’. It is fastidious and elegant, sensuous and poetic; there is a dry, popular humour in the dialogue and a knack for jolts and shifts of focus. But in this 19th-century language the starkest epics unfold. Serge wrote in 1931 to the poet Marcel Martinet: ‘In Birth of Our Power and Men in Prison, I sought to write the novel of proletarian strength becoming revealed to itself for the first time’; in Conquered City, he ‘would want to express the drama of that force as it comes up against both history and itself – and wins’. These three novels comprise what Greeman calls the sub-cycle of revolution, which is followed by a tetralogy of resistance: Midnight in the Century, about the Gulag, Tulayev, The Long Dusk and the still untranslated Les Années sans pardon. Greeman spots a typical Sergian paradox: that although the first group deals with victory and the second with defeat, triumph is shown to contain the seeds of corruption, while in the worst of times (though only in the strongest minds) hope revives beneath the sacrifice and barbarity.

This is especially true of The Long Dusk, which revolves around the experience of apocalypse, and the explosive dispersal of the forces of the old world: the menace, then the arrival of the Nazis in Paris, entailing the fracture of a whole society into collaborators and fugitives; and then the bottleneck in Marseille, where intellectuals and refugees fight over the trickle of visas for the Americas. Internment or suicide for some, the boat for others. A few take to the hills to prepare the Resistance. It’s an archetypal moment of changeover, with all the options in the air. The cast includes a gloomy, flabby, famous poet; a ferocious old wood-seller and patriot with a nose for hypocrisy; a ragged Russian refugee (Dr Ardatov); a Spanish Republican and other political nomads, trying to redefine themselves in extremis, and perhaps failing; a haunted soldier on the verge of madness; a Soviet agent; a couple of chaste girls. Ideological and moral rectitude are delicately, loosely knit together. The sense of a rotten society, which needs to be cauterised before it can heal, is promptly expressed by all sorts of Fascist, from a housemaid with a dim view of Ardatov and his smelly, snooty kind – ‘Let’s hope the Boches clean Paris of this scum!’ – to a regretful German officer: ‘Nietzsche said it: “the dying must be helped to pass over.”’ These are complacent echoes of the sentiments of other characters, who welcome more painfully the shake-up in a history that has stalled. Hilda tells Ardatov: ‘It’ll be a long, long time, it’ll be the long nightmare, but the old, unbreathable world is finished . . . there are only oceans of chaos to be crossed before all life begins again.’

Along with the beauty of Paris, the manifold nature of treachery and love, and the relation between individual choice and wider forces, The Long Dusk turns on historical cycles of regeneration, which are described in almost geological terms. History can bury itself for centuries: ‘So let the smoking rains fall/on the mind’s rain forest./So many funeral masks/are preserved in the earth/that nothing is yet lost.’ In his last exile, in Mexico, Serge immersed himself in archaeo-anthropology; his young companion Laurette Séjourné was to become a respected writer on the subject. With his forebodings about the spread of totalitarianism (a word he claimed to have coined) and its mirroring in democratic societies, he had written off the working class for the time being and was living in poverty, distanced from Séjourné, who told Weissman that his life had been ‘too full of tragedy and darkness for her to understand’. Stubbornly campaigning with a handful of others, he was gagged again as a result of Soviet and British pressure, and stalked by executioners. Well might he take comfort in the evidence of millenarian rhythms, blended with the lessons of the patient revolutionaries of his childhood. Ardatov tells the doubters: ‘This planet is wonderful, that’s for certain. And history unfolds in spite of us, through us, with us, even if it crushes us. It goes where it must go.’

Serge died in 1947. He suffered a heart attack in a Mexican taxi, like Tina Modotti, though murder was proved in her case, but not in his. As he had the honour of being stateless, and stateless persons couldn’t be buried, his last close comrade, Julián Gorkin, asked Vlady what nationality he would have chosen. ‘“Spanish,” Vlady answered without hesitating. So the Russo-French-Belgian writer Victor Serge lies in the French Cemetery in Mexico City as a Spanish subject.’