Victor Serge was born into exile in 1890 and died in exile 57 years later. The child of Russian radicals who fled to Belgium in the wake of the plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, Serge (né Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) embraced anarchism and was jailed for writing in support of a band of notorious, quasi-anarchist French bank-robbers known as the Bonnot Gang. He subsequently participated in the abortive anarcho-syndicalist Catalan uprising of 1917, was again imprisoned and then made his way across Europe to his parents’ now revolutionary homeland, where he made common cause with the Bolsheviks.
Dispatched in the mid-1920s to Germany and Vienna as a Comintern agent, Serge came to know many of the world’s leading revolutionaries. He returned to the Soviet Union to join the anti-Stalin opposition, led by Leon Trotsky. With the opposition’s defeat and his resulting expulsion from the Communist Party, he became a full-time writer; his work was mailed out of Russia for publication in France. Arrested once more and exiled to Central Asia, he managed to avoid liquidation thanks in part to a series of organized protests by left-wing French intellectuals, including André Gide. At the 1935 International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, they spoke out in protest when the Soviet delegation and their supporters attempted to suppress all mention of the “counterrevolutionary” Victor Serge.
Expelled from the Soviet Union, a free man in Paris, Serge wrote book-length pamphlets excoriating Stalin and, despite their disagreements, defending Trotsky. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he backed the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, the same independent Marxist faction for whom George Orwell fought; published his novel of the Gulag, Midnight in the Century; and worked on what would be his best-known book, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a fictionalized account of the purge trials less monolithic in its analysis of Bolshevik psychology than Arthur Koestler’s contemporaneous Darkness at Noon.
In the 1960s, the progressive American journalist I.F. Stone wrote that Serge, while “apparently no more than a splinter of a splinter in the Marxist movement … looms up as one of the great moral figures of our time, an artist of such integrity and a revolutionary of such purity as to overshadow those who achieved fame and power.” That integrity and purity are factors of Serge’s marginality. A permanent, often solitary, oppositionist, Serge was less a martyr than a stubborn survivor—a man of action who was ultimately a witness and, as such, crucial to understanding 1914-1945, a period that the historian Enzo Traverso has called the European Civil War. Serge was too disciplined to seem a revolutionary romantic and, at least in his writing, also too reflective.
He was, rather, a quintessential European of his times—essentially stateless, frequently imprisoned, often a fugitive, always committed to class struggle, yet a thorn in the side of virtually every movement he supported. Never an icon, he nonetheless has inspired a cult that, until NYRB Classics began restoring his novels to print fifteen years ago, had been kept alive in the English-speaking world by a succession of small left-wing and sectarian publishers (Writers and Readers, Redwords, Humanities Press, Pluto Press, New Park Publications, Monad, PM) whose editions might be reckoned to be in the hundred.
A perpetual exile, without a home in contemporary literature or left politics, Serge has been repeatedly discovered and forgotten—a state of affairs at once fitting and frustrating. A case may be made that he is the greatest exponent of what Sartre, thinking of Koestler and André Malraux, called “a literature of extreme situations”—were Serge himself not such a hard case.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Serge and his young son Vlady fled Paris and made their way to Marseilles. Along with a number of refugees—some quite celebrated—helped by Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, they escaped on a boat to the New World.
The situation was the basis for the novel Transit, and in fact its author, the German Communist Anna Seghers, sailed on the same ship as Serge. Refused entry to the United States in 1941, Serge ended up in Mexico, where he spent the last six years of his life dodging Stalinist agents, among them Seghers’s husband, the sociologist László Radványi, characterized by Serge, a master of nuanced left-wing invective, as “a pitiful intellectual of the vigorous and woolly rodent type.”
When Serge arrived in Mexico, he had already written six autobiographical novels (four were published in France, two others were confiscated in manuscript by the Soviet secret police), a history of the Russian Revolution and several book-length political tracts. In Mexico he completed a pair of invaluable works, Memoirs of a Revolutionary and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, both posthumously published in the early 1950s. He would go on to write numerous poems and articles as well as a biography of Trotsky in collaboration with the subject’s widow, Natalia Sedova, and two more novels, Unforgiving Years and The Long Dusk (the only one of Serge’s books to be published in English during his lifetime). He also kept a journal, scarcely less fascinating than Memoirs of a Revolutionary.
Selections from the journal first appeared, two years after the author’s death, in Sartre’s publication Les Temps Modernes. A larger selection was published in France in 1952. Then, in 2010, some 1,500 pages of Serge’s writings were discovered in Mexico. These formed the basis for Notebooks 1936-1947, published in France in 2012 and now, translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman, Serge’s most loyal American champion, out from NYRB Classics.
Teeming with vivid characters, full of richly observed locations, detailed memories and the author’s continual grappling with political events, Notebooks is the equal of Serge’s novels, although structurally, at nearly six hundred pages with another fifty providing brief identifications, it might be considered as two novellas (one set in Paris during the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow Trials, the other on the boat steaming towards America), a novel (Serge in Mexico) and an epilogue (Serge in the cold dawn of the Cold War).
Notebooks’s earliest entries, dating from late 1936 through the summer of 1940, sketch an oblique political thriller that might be the outline for a Patrick Modiano novel—populated by weary double agents and full of unsolvable dead-end mysteries and inexplicable back-alley intrigue under a gray Paris sky. Serge describes a series of clandestine meetings. One is with the then-eminent André Gide, newly returned from and now secretly critical of the Soviet Union. “Try not to be followed,” his contact advises him. Gide favorably impresses Serge, who writes that as they parted that “his voice took on a something of the accent of a lower-class, slack-jawed Montmartre gangster, revealing the man who knows the dirty corners of Paris and the underside of life.”
Others are that underside. As hyper-alert as a hunted animal, Serge is suspicious of Walter Krivitsky, the recently defected head of Soviet intelligence in Western Europe, eventually to be assassinated in Washington D.C.: “when he put his hand in his pocket to take out a cigarette I watched him closely.” Others are pitiful. Serge finds Trotsky’s former translator Maurice Parijanine holed up in a shabby hotel in an outlying district where the wallpaper is “the color of poverty.”
If the weather is ominous, so is Serge’s mood. “I feel the nearness of the dead and the living; and that history is carrying us away,” he muses, not for the last time. Serge concludes that the Soviet Union has become “the largest prison in the world” and ponders his break with Trotsky, the Old Man who he admired “beyond measure.” Thinking of Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova, Serge writes, “the terrifying atmosphere of persecution in which they—and I—lived inclined them to persecution mania and to the exercise of persecution.” The last entry in this section, written in Marseille in August 1940, three months after the fall of Paris, recounts, by way of American newspaper reports, Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico.
The journals resume in winter, with Serge hanging around the port of Marseille (where he observes Simone Weil, “hunched, long hair, her eyes gray, intelligent, and a bit mad”), waiting for and then, helped by the Emergency Rescue Committee, securing passage on a boat out of Europe. Many of the entries are addressed to his companion Laurette Séjourné, who remained for a time in France. In addition to Seghers, the other passengers on the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle included the Surrealist pope André Breton, with whom Serge became friendly, the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who describes the voyage in the second chapter of Tristes Tropiques and, according to Serge, teased him as an “incorrigible Marxist.” For his part, Lévi-Strauss found it difficult to reconcile Serge’s intimidating reputation as a veteran Bolshevik with his stilted manners, suggesting “a maiden lady of high principles” or a Buddhist monk.
Serge had reason to be guarded. He notes that the Stalinists on board the ship are holding “secret meetings” and writes that “we drag this atmosphere around with us, for it is part of our era.” A piece of Europe had broken from the continent, bringing its own poisonous fog. While at sea, he writes his recollections of Lenin and Trotsky and recounts his arrest by Stalin’s agents: “They searched for conspiracy even in my socks and shoe soles.” As a professional revolutionary and a Leninist, Serge took political intrigue for granted (although he doesn’t acknowledge practicing any himself). It’s superfluous to observe that even paranoids have enemies, if said paranoids were opponents of Josef Stalin.
After a month at sea, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle docked in the Dominican Republic. Serge and Vlady were put ashore in Ciudad Trujillo to await their Mexican visas. Stranded for three months, he records his impressions of the city and fears for his sanity, albeit concluding that he has “walked along the borderline of madness often enough to have become convinced of the impossibility” of losing his mind. It was during this time that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, although Serge makes no mention of it.
This transit novella has something of the flavor of B. Traven’s The Death Ship and might be named, after Serge’s characterization, the “floating concentration camp.” Serge ends it in contemplation of a small cemetery outside his window: “How simple and terrible the solitude of the living who love the dead.” Not yet fifty, he might well have thought his life was over. Serge would be moved by the suicide of the exile Stefan Zweig in Brazil seven months hence, considering it “the dignified refusal to live in conditions you can’t accept.” Yet, as he had in previous exiles, Serge himself did accept them.
Mortality is on Serge’s mind in his first Mexican entry, “The Tomb of Coyoacán,” named for the haute bohemian neighborhood of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and the fortified home where Leon Trotsky made his last stand. A description of Trotsky’s villa, a year after the assassination, might be said to initiate a second novel: “Two armed young men are guarding shadows, a deserted intellectual laboratory, a devastated woman-child of sixty-five. Citadel of ghosts, haunted tomb, absolute distress.” Yet there are intimations of a paradise: “Around [the villa], rich vegetation, blue mountains, the great, radiant sky.” Europe is no more.
The new world did not provide a respite from political struggle. On the contrary, Mexico was home to tens of thousands of anti-fascist Spanish refugees, both opponents and supporters of Stalin’s Soviet Union. As preoccupied as he is with the Nazi invasion of Russia and the resulting massacre of civilian Jews, Serge never ceases his own attack on the Stalin cult both in the U.S. and Mexico: “Stalinist penetration is so great here that they have agents in every newspaper, even those of the right.” Repeatedly, he expresses exasperation with Trotsky’s Mexican disciples and astonishment at Stalin’s admirers. “Few people know that the so-called Soviet regime is totalitarian. And among those who are aware of this, many admire it for just this reason.”
As in Paris, Serge believed his life was in danger. Nor was his fear unwarranted. A meeting organized by anti-Stalinist Spanish refugees to commemorate the suspicious deaths of several internationally known socialists, the Italian organizer Carlo Tresca (gunned down in New York) and the Polish Jewish leaders Victor Alter and Henryk Ehrlich (swallowed up by the Soviet Union), was attacked by local Communists, with Serge vilified in the Mexican press. Stalin “is probably organizing the campaign against us personally,” he broods.
Writing for the desk drawer and also history, Serge attempted to make sense of his times and provide a reckoning. His journals are interspersed with obituaries for the famous, the infamous, his enemies and, most tenderly, for friends like the radical psychoanalyst Fritz Fränkel, a fellow supporter of the Spanish, anti-Stalinist Communist party POUM. Serge believed that human intelligence was nurtured by human contact, “a social as much as a bio-psychological fact,” and Trotsky’s isolation haunts him: “Terrible to be so strong, so great, and so alone.”
No less than Trotsky, Serge believed in the political significance of culture, although his interests were more wide-ranging. Despite a brief, strategic alliance with the surrealists and a practical relationship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Trotsky upheld the Western canon: Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and especially Tolstoy. Perhaps because he was a novelist, Serge was more interested in visual artists. His second Mexican entry describes a meeting with Rivera. Despite his disappointment with the painter as a man (“an overgrown child” with a twelve-year-old’s mentality), Serge allows that he has “never seen anything as beautiful as his frescoes. Alongside them, the stuff Picasso makes for art galleries catering to bourgeois collectors fed on intellectual refuse seems pale charlatanry!”
Throughout, Serge’s Notebooks attest to a deep interest in modern art—not least as a form of thinking. An entry from 1945 calls abstraction “one of the great discoveries of intelligence,” and leads him into a startlingly advanced discussion of semiotics, although he concludes that “the substitution of the sign for the object” results in “the destruction of the object” and, citing Miro, replaces “expressive power” with “elementary ornamentalism.” In addition to Mexican painters José Clemente Orozco and Dr. Atl, as well as fellow exile, the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, there are entries on Chagall (praised), Picasso (criticized), and Duchamp (noted). Serge wrestles with surrealism and his shifting opinion of his erstwhile travel companion André Breton (“a personality that is nothing but a pose”). He befriends another surrealist, the British expatriate Gordon Onslow Ford, whose abstract, “metallic” paintings he describes in detail, finding them rigorous and hence in some ways paralyzed, a state of which he must have been acutely aware.
Serge also turns his attention to popular art, writing on subjects ranging from a color Superman animated cartoon (“a mixture of great imagination and unspeakable stupidity”) and the iconic comic actor Cantinflas (“the only healthy and living character created by the Mexican cinema”) to wrestling (as a lengthy prologue to an observation on the war) and the Frank Capra movie Arsenic and Old Lace (which prompts the observation that the leitmotif of the best Hollywood movies is that “madness or manias are man’s only escape in today’s world”).
Obsessing over the war in Europe, Serge records his suitably apocalyptic and prescient dreams (two of earthquakes, another presaging the atom bomb) and engages in extended passages of descriptive writing. These are typically excursions to architectural sites, accompanied and likely encouraged by Séjourné. (Arriving in Mexico some months after Serge, she would remain for the rest of her life, transforming herself into a distinguished archeologist and ethnologist, author of the first book on the rediscovered Mayan city Palenque and the classic Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico.)
As it was for the surrealists (and in Serge’s novel Unforgiving Years), Mexico is a dream. On one trip to Michoacán, Serge and Séjourné spot “a bus painted faded lilac, banged up from collisions, the bodywork dented with missing patches” that is named El Bolchevique (The Bolshevik). They joke that it is him, “an old Bolshevik, the last one, all worn out and covered in scars but still running, huffing and puffing, over the roads of Mexico.” Like the bus, Serge’s mind plows forward while also looking back, as when he recognizes the face of an old comrade in a newspaper photograph of dead fascists or works with Natalia Sedova on her memoirs: “It’s so strange to be the only two survivors of so great a historic catastrophe.”
Forever seeking to understand that catastrophe, Serge parses the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky in psychoanalytic terms. As antagonists, he writes, both acted on unconscious impulse and suffered from a lack of self-awareness. Describing the scene of their fatal break, a 1927 meeting of the Central Committee during which, in an argument over China’s civil war, Trotsky grandly pronounced Stalin “the gravedigger of revolutions,” Serge asks Fränkel if it might not have helped them to prep for the meeting by consulting a psychologist. (“They would certainly have benefited from it,” Fränkel tells him.)
Was the battered Bolchevique looking for what the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik in Tony Kushner’s Slavs! calls “the next great theory?” Was he pondering a synthesis of psychotherapy and socialism that might have aligned his thinking with that of Erich Fromm (who, like Orwell, admired his integrity)? Serge’s four years in Paris, if not the time he spent in Vienna, seemingly made him something of a modernist. While struggling with his penultimate novel The Long Dusk, he read The Trial, recognizing it as a “satire of an era yet to come. Kafka foretold totalitarian machinery, its perfect crushing of man, its throat-cuttings, and in this sense his novel is that of a visionary prophet.”
After D-Day, Serge begins imagining the postwar world. Having already noted that “Stalin’s salvation lies in the domination of Central Europe,” he predicts the rise of “Communist-totalitarian condottieri [mercenaries] of the Mao Zedong and Tito type, cynical and convinced, who’ll be ‘revolutionaries’ and counterrevolutionaries, or both at once, according to the orders they receive…” He seems not to understand the significance of decolonization, seeing it, as with blinders, as merely an opportunity for Stalinist expansion. His great concern is the creation of a post-Stalinist socialism and reestablishment of democratic freedoms in Europe.
The journal entries cease in the summer of 1945 and pick up again the following spring after Serge has completed his last novel Unforgiving Years to provide a postwar epilogue consisting largely of short essays, mainly on Stalinism. In May 1946, he suffers acute vertigo while walking through Morelia and contemplates his death. A few weeks later, he sends Leonora Carrington a surreal commentary on her Boschian portrait of Saint Anthony, filled with images of obliteration and escape: “Anthony was thirsty. A door opened in one of the walls… Except, that couldn’t be a door due to the lack of architecture, of an exit, of an entrance, of a lock, a rent, a jailer, a rampart, a prohibition.” Was there no way out? Notebooks’s last entry, dated November 1947, the month Serge suffered what appears to have been a fatal heart attack, is an obituary for one more comrade, the painter Amadeo Modigliani’s socialist brother Giuseppe Emanuele.
Serge had begun the year 1944 with the observation that “men need a sense of history comparable to the sense of direction of migratory birds.” Written in exile and under duress, his Notebooks chronicle that need, and he died with a wet finger still to the wind. On the one hand, Bolshevism, as he wrote in late 1941, was—despite Stalin—“a Prodigious Human Success,” a historical miracle, proof that the oppressed millions might rise up and claim their share. On the other hand, as he noted some three and a half years later, collaborating with Trotsky’s widow in the villa he inevitably compares to a tomb, “the ideas of the Revolution are dead.”
It is impossible to say how Serge’s thinking might have evolved during the Cold War and after, but for him, the long view was integral. The first sentence in Memoirs of a Revolutionary is prophetic. “Even before I emerged from childhood,” he writes, “I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling which was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape, in which there was nothing for it but to fight for an impossible escape.” It was when Serge was 38, with the Left Opposition to Stalin crushed and himself grievously ill in a Leningrad hospital, that the second part of his life began.
In Mexico, Serge recalled that, deeming his political activity to have been “futile and insufficient,” he made the resolution to write and, presumably, address the future. As a record of a living human intelligence struggling against a lived human helplessness, his journals provide comfort: How alert the human mind even in adversity! How resilient! How amazing to maintain attachments when he has nothing! How remarkable to have faith in the future, to think through the present moment no matter how dark. But the journals are also a warning.
An outcast (and a Bolshevik) to the end, Serge might be considered Marxism’s Jeremiah, an idealist and a skeptic. We ignore his history at our peril. This exemplary man was jailed and exiled both as a revolutionary and a revolutionary dissident—a citizen without a state, a victim of left groupthink without a group to think for, who nevertheless continued to think for himself.