As a teen, he grew up in an anarchist commune in the Belgian forests. As a young man in Paris, he aspired toward writing, but the anarchist gangs he hung out with were arrested for their robberies and he with them. Eventually freed, he travelled to Spain and witnessed its early revolutionary throes, before moving on to Russia where the Big One was already in progress. He rose through the Russian Revolution’s ranks and into the confidence of its leaders. When Stalin made his grab at power, our protagonist publicly and courageously opposed the tyrant, aligning himself with an anti-Stalin opposition that soon found itself imprisoned or dead. Our hero was the rare exception, granted a miraculous release from Stalin’s prisons, thanks to the work of his advocates abroad.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire: he escaped into a Europe hurtling toward war in which he – as a prominent Communist feared by the West and targeted for death by Stalin – faced assured extermination. Miraculously, another escape – aboard one of the last boats out of France ahead of the Nazi invasion, and eventually (following more arrests and escapes) on to Mexico. There, he found himself in a New World, studying Mesoamerican art and reflecting on the lessons of a lifetime spent in revolution.
Victor Serge was not only one of the most colourful of the Russian revolutionaries, he was also among the most reflexive and literate. The final years of Serge’s life were spent in Mexican exile. His second wife Laurette Sejourne (she and their two children also escaped and joined him in exile) intrepidly forged a new career as a Mesoamerican archaeologist. For Victor, 20 years her senior, adaptation to life in exile was not so easy. He was surrounded by other exiles and political refugees, yet most of the Communists (including the powerful Mexican Communist Party) towed the Stalinist line and ostracized him. His sometime-friend Trotsky was assassinated, and credible threats suggested he too was high on the Stalinist hit list.
An inveterate writer of fiction and non-fiction alike, his manuscripts – critical of Soviet totalitarianism — sat unpublished because North American publishers also no-platformed him, out of courtesy to their country’s war-time ally Stalin. As one of the few who had seen the inside of Stalin’s gulags and lived to tell the tale, even the prospect of looming Nazi defeat was tainted by the likelihood that Stalin’s equally totalitarian regime would likely play a key role in shaping the post-war order.
For much of Serge’s life, he had managed to find hope amidst adversity. Against the poverty of pre-revolutionary Europe, he fought for revolution – and won. When things began to go sour in Russia, there was still hope in the Spanish revolutionary civil war – until it too was crushed by the fascists. He managed to survive even this, as well as the eruption of World War II – but could he re-invent himself yet again, at 50-plus years of age, a continent away from the maelstrom of socialist and revolutionary action? Ought his intellectual contribution to lie in charting a course for the next stage of the struggle for freedom and socialism? Or ought it to lie in analyzing the tragic mistakes he and his revolutionary colleagues had previously made? Which course would better serve the future?
Was there a future for socialism?
This was Serge’s mindset in the final decade of his life (he died in 1947): a conflicting mix of hope, despair, anger, and profound intellectual curiosity.
Notebooks: 1936-1947 is full of cloak and dagger
intrigues, assassinations, and constant uncertainty
of who might be friend and who might be foe.
His was a mind of keen, razor-sharp intelligence, on par with such contemporaries (and in many ways kindred spirits) as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. An inveterate diarist who kept regular journal entries right up until his death, his journals from the period are a rich blend of the personal, the political, and the historical, filled with reportage, travel vignettes and artistic and cultural analyses.
Excerpts of Serge’s later diaries were published in the period following the war, but in 2010 more than 1,500 new pages of his writing and journals were discovered among several boxes in his wife Laurette’s archive. They were published in French in 2012 and in English this year, thanks to the superb translation work of
Mitchell Abidor and Richard Freeman. They’re a remarkably rewarding read. Serge ranges across the entirety of his varied fields of interest. He follows news of the European war (which he describes not as a war between countries, but as a “European civil war”) keenly, and analyses historical causes and future prospects with all the fervent immediacy of a contemporary political commentator.
Likewise with his analyses of revolutionary movements. He complements these with rich reflections on art and culture. A natural anthropologist, random encounters in the market or some backwater village will spark remarkable and insightful narratives. He turns philosophical at times, and at others he revels in the beauty of Mexico’s natural landscape, which he explores with a zest that belies his age: climbing volcanoes, excavating pre-Columbian temples, traversing the dark and hidden alleys of ancient, half-forgotten towns in search of stories and artifacts of interest.
And he does all this with a beautiful sense of style. His novels are praised still today (although far less commonly read) for their evocative, sweeping beauty and compelling narratives. The same style is reflected in his journal entries, where every turn of phrase and bit of imagery is a delight to read. His trip to Acapulco in mid-September 1944 offers an example:
“I love discovering sites in this half of the world that I’m beginning to know, that I’ll never finish knowing. The stone cliff before Taxco, with water streaming over them and clouds clinging to them, remind me of the valley of the Loue, the Jura. Near Iguala tropics, sugarcane, the weight of incandescence, monotony. The Rio Balsas runs through low, intensely green brush. Its waters are brown and a boiling yellow. Thatch huts on the banks; the naked children, piglets, hens, lizards, insects, snakes, and scorpions living together. Further along, towards the Rio Papagayo, rises a marvelous, uninhabited Switzerland, light green with valleys, summits, waterfalls, and woods, all of it bathed in a vegetal aquatic blue. The solitude is total. Tierra Colorada, a large town on red earth (like in Adjaristan), abundance of fruits.”
Notebooks: 1936-1947 contains an element of the political thriller, as well, simply by virtue of the times he lived through. Mexico City emerges as a melting pot of revolutionaries — former foes and combatants, present-day militants and secret agents, all thrown together to battle over their shared history. It’s full of cloak and dagger intrigues, assassinations, and constant uncertainty of who might be friend and who might be foe. Stalinist gangs follow him on the streets, trying to stop his articles and talks; they lie waiting in dark corridors to “bash my face in.”
Serge puts on a wryly fatalistic attitude in the face of these threats and dangers: life continues, at least while it does. He offers sketches of many fascinating individuals as well: Trotsky; Andre Gide; Andre Breton; Anna Seghers; and dozens more. The book complements its hefty intellectual spaces with charming and quirky moments of life. Escapades with his young daughter (whose schoolteachers feared her communist influence on the other children at the age of seven). A visit to Day of the Dead revelry following Trotsky’s assassination, which reveals Mexicans producing stylized Trotsky dolls for the event. His friend Alice Ruhle describes the moving intimacy of sharing poetry with Trotsky in the early days of the Revolution. And more. Amidst it all, Serge’s stirring descriptions of life in Mexico:
“A lovely sunset, the sky aflame above the castle, a gentle blaze. It is as impossible to write this as to remember it correctly or to see it well. One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in. Across from us, a rocky coast, all red. The water gray silk, pink, with hints of blue. Background light blue under the flame. An absolute sadness grows through this vision and it is the approach of night.”
Despite an adherence to good old-fashioned positivism, at times his writing suggests experimental impulses which might have emerged had he lived longer. Toward the end of his journals he produced a remarkable, surreal tract on the Guadalajara Museum, deeply impressionistic and evocative of the New Journalism.
That said, one of the important ways in which Serge’s journals can be read in the present day is not just as an interesting collection of historical reportage and travelogue, but as a disparate body of political theory that he would undoubtedly have collected into a more coherent form had he lived longer (and not been ostracized by his publishers for his anti-Stalinism). Incomplete as they are, his journal entries can be read with a view toward extricating the political lessons of his tumultuous era, and applying them to our own. Several lessons emerge with relevance for the present.
How did the Russian Revolution turn sour? Serge, who lived through much of it – “I lived this tragic story from its beginning to its final period” he writes — struggles to wrap his head around where they went wrong. Could they have done things differently? He understands that the terror and violence that the Revolution inflicted in trying to suppress counter-revolutionaries – actual and suspected – established a template for summary violence which Stalin would eventually turn against the revolutionary leaders themselves.
But could the rag-tag band of communist rebels — facing the threat of brutal military death squads loyal to the tsar, and then facing the combined might of the armies of the capitalist West which descended on Russia to crush their revolution –have saved their revolution any other way? Was there a way to distinguish their revolutionary violence – enacted in the hope of saving a vulnerable ideal from the many more powerful monsters who sought to crush it — from the fascist, totalitarian violence which now swept the world? These are the issues Serge struggles with.
There’s an implicit question here: could a future revolution be done differently? Are there ways to protect both a revolutionary political regime, and at the same time the revolutionaries’ souls, with their qualities of human kindness, mercy and compassion?
Serge understands why so many of his former comrades turned against him when he spoke out against Stalin. Waves of terror become infectious, and reinforce themselves through the guilt and complicity of their participants: “having killed some, they can no longer look the others in the eye or put up with their silence.”
His journals are grocery lists of friends, revolutionaries, great minds all killed by Stalin’s thugs. He lists them one by one as he learns of their demise – hundreds of them in the course of his journals – and in several cases offers brief memories of the victims. Why didn’t more people oppose Stalin? Many of the original, idealistic Bolsheviks, he feels, went almost willingly to their doom, not because of guilt or defeat but because they feared that taking steps to save themselves or undermine Stalin’s state would endanger the revolution. They essentially sacrificed themselves to the revolution.
He writes of Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek, and other leading revolutionaries executed by Stalin: “They remained faithful until the final hour to a revolution and party in the process of destruction. They covered themselves in mud and allowed themselves to be executed in order to serve despite it all. What they lacked was a clear political vision of the drama they were participating in. The courage to pitilessly see things clearly. The courage of a mother admitting to herself: ‘I gave birth to a monster.'”
Serge, obviously, disagrees with sacrifice: he chose to oppose Stalin’s growing totalitarianism, and then flee. But if he disagrees with how the revolution has been co-opted, and he disagrees with sacrificing oneself. (However, he emphatically defends the right of people like the author Stefan Zweig to kill themselves when they felt it was no longer possible to live with dignity.) How then should he proceed, his revolution co-opted by a totalitarian tyrant, without giving in to despair?
The answer is that Serge sees himself as a revolutionary vanguard, and hopes that by speaking out he can save the moral contours of socialist revolution for a future era. He responds to the crisis with a reflection on:
“…the rearguard combat of revolutionaries. I say that we must be hostile to sacrifice, especially to the psychology of sacrifice with its aspiration to suffering, which sweeps away problems, lightens responsibilities, and aggrandizes us while leaving the initiative to the enemy… Be harshly realistic, determined to hold on and win, but also know how to accept rearguard battles, lost in advance, with the sangfroid of officers carrying out a costly but useful operation. For we are totally committed and it is above all the future that counts for us, constantly moving forward. No total responsibility, no absolute decision without that. A rearguard battle in order to save the greater part of our forces and ideas responds to precise historical necessities that we cannot evade. It’s a local and momentary defeat that saves something essential and leaves us feeling a satisfaction thanks to which we escape the demoralization of defeat. The main thing is not to feel ourselves defeated…Today, we are both the extreme rear guard and the infinitely extreme vanguard in the forefront of events.”
In our own era, which is increasingly characterized by “rearguard battles”, this is cogent food for thought.
“The impotence of intellectuals”: Ideological Rigidity and No-Platforming
A recurring theme in Notebooks: 1936 – 1947 is Serge’s fury at the intellectuals of the West, who should know better yet who make apologies for Stalin, or even defend Stalin, or at best simply look away in silence. He despises the silence of these intellectuals, who play at being progressive and revolutionary but are either bought off or too scared to actually speak up against totalitarian power:
“A rich revolution that exercises power distributes honors and advantages, easily seduces intellectuals by enabling them to be both revolutionary and conformist, quasi-heroic without running any danger, and loaded with benefits.”
We live today in an era in which it is said free speech is threatened by ideology; in which no-platforming is denounced by some and seen as a useful tactic by others. Yet there is nothing new about any of this. Serge’s writing reveals that such conflicts and debates were just as – probably even more – prevalent nearly a century ago, especially in academic and intellectual circles. As someone who had been no-platformed himself by the ascendant Stalinists, in his journals he rages against the ideological rigidity and lack of open-mindedness of his intellectual peers.
“What was striking in this discussion,” he writes after a Stalinist-dominated public talk he attended, “was its childishness and ideological inertia. People not even capable of thinking…No one listens to a person who differs, attempts to understand him or respond to him. They just repeat themselves. Infantile self-satisfaction.”
He tries to maintain a difficult friendship with Trotsky’s widow Natalia as well. (They co-wrote the biography The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky; Haymarket Books, reprint edition 2016). Their relationship is a fraught one, because he had refused to jump in with Trotsky’s nascent ‘Fourth International’ movement despite their shared opposition to Stalin. Natalia sometimes succumbs to the malicious gossip being levelled against Serge. One senses his frustration:
“I exist too strongly and I am at present completely isolated, materially defeated, with no money, no platform, no party, no support. Instinct leads to striking the weak, and when one is dealing with a strong person [such as Serge himself], whose existence alone affirms something but who is disarmed socially, all those with the competitive spirit feel the itch to beat them black and blue.”
“If I were younger – with more muscular force – I would wait and do whatever job to earn my bread. But all that’s left in me is a brain, which no one needs right now and which many would prefer perforated with a definitive little bullet.”
“‘Culture’ allows them to escape into a fog of ideas and words,
a sustaining fog, an alibi…[they are] Also bound by their
material situation, vanity, money…”
The abandonment of the scientific, rational spirit is leading to “an era of clouded consciousness”, Serge writes, in which people are considered right simply by saying they are right, and in which personal truth trumps and replaces objective truth. It is, increasingly, a world in which the quantity of printed matter claims truth by its very volume. There is an incipient parallel between his experience of this, and our contemporary social media-ridden reality, in which again the pervasiveness of fake news works to enact its acceptance.
“This is a time of falsified – that is, betrayed – values…It is only interests that speak – the interests that pay. All the values that are praised are tainted…Under capitalism, everything being a commodity – truth, information, thought, knowledge, like the rest – we are subject to the laws of the marketplace in the realm of spiritual production, and this has meant the domination of large-scale producers at the service of large-scale consumption; the proliferation of degraded product and fakes.”
His own repeated ostracism and no-platforming makes this a recurrent topic. But the reader benefits from Serge’s misfortune, for he dissects the motivations of his opponents – “cowardice of the intellectuals” — with ruthless and objective analytical precision.
“Intellectuals follow only power and success, resist the shock of defeat weakly, and are easily demoralized,” he summarizes, drawing on his own experience as a sort of nouveau intellectual.
“They are constructed to degrade themselves under every form of tyranny as long as they’re allowed to make a living and write criticism…What’s strange is that in actual situations they are far more cowardly than it is reasonable to be. This is because the roots of their cowardice are deep: the fear, at bottom, of taking a firm stand and seeing clearly, because seeing clearly forces you to make a commitment. ‘Culture’ allows them to escape into a fog of ideas and words, a sustaining fog, an alibi…[they are] Also bound by their material situation, vanity, money…”
There is, he reflects while considering his friend Paul Rivet, a strange problem he cannot resolve: “Why so much poltroonery among the intellectuals and why such a sudden and base collapse of scientific conscience? They have an insurmountable fear of swimming against the current: they always have to be carried by the tide, ‘on the right side of things,’ not too far from official honors and money.” In the case of Rivet, he muses, why doesn’t he have the integrity to assert himself against the servile and fawning Stalinists? “He could, with a bit more guts. But it’s guts he’s lacking, accustomed as he is to parliamentary mores and the politesse of salons, in which one smilingly rubs elbows with one’s worst enemies. He doesn’t know that the totalitarians only accept this game in order to take advantage of it, and he doesn’t want to know…”
How little intellectuals have changed!
As Serge castigates in his journal the liberal intellectuals who justify Stalinism and Stalin’s fake trials and concentration camps, his critique is vindicated in the mind of the modern reader who knows how quickly those same liberals would — soon, once it was fashionable — be the ones breaking with Stalinism and championing the cold war, capitalism, neoliberalism… “What is an intellectual worth without probity of the intelligence? He’s nothing but a counterfeiter. If he thinks he’s on the left too bad for the left, for they are no longer anything but demoralizers…The morality of intelligence is inseparable from the simple exercise of the intelligence, in the sense of scientific thought. The distortion of verifiable facts, the refusal to recognize them out of admiration for the powers of the day, out of inclination to follow the great currents of opinion moulded by the powers of the day, constitutes a total bankruptcy.”
One problem, Serge suggests, is that the Russian revolutionaries failed to examine their own selves as critically as they examined others, something he attributes to the socialists’ distrust of psychology (which at the time they considered a liberal, bourgeois hobby, not grounded in material science). A result of this failure by socialists to trust and consider the importance of psychology on human beings “has been that socialism has allowed itself to be outstripped by science and that the new sciences, no longer fecundated by the influence of idealistic socialism, have all the more strongly felt the influence of reactionary currents. During the Russian Revolution these phenomena produced a veritable intellectual catastrophe that greatly facilitated the advent of totalitarianism. The excuse of the great Russians was that they didn’t have time…”
One can sense that these conflicts with old comrades weighs on him, however courageously he hews to his own truth.
“I’m in conflict with many comrades…Their fidelity to formulas I consider out of date, and from which I think socialism will die if it doesn’t succeed in renewing itself, makes them hostile to me. To such a point that in debates they cease to understand me, not wanting to understand me, feeling in some way offended and wanting to fight more than to reflect…The best-disposed men, professing in principle respect for free thought, the critical spirit, and objective analysis, in reality don’t know how to tolerate ideas different from their own.”
He puts his finger on the problem that characterizes our own age as much as his – intransigence is both a virtue and a fault.
“The essential problem: you have to choose sides, there’s always a truth to be sought, to find, to defend, an imperative truth that binds. There is neither action nor thought of any value without intransigence. Intransigence is firmness, is being. How to reconcile this with respect for the person who is different, with thought that is different?”
“I glimpse a solution. Combative intransigence controlled by a rigor as objective as possible and by an absolute rule of respect for others, respect even for the enemy.” (and yet, he notes, “The totalitarians render respect for the enemy difficult if not impossible.”)
What, one wonders, would he have thought of intellectual factions and no-platforming in our present age? He sensed that the emergent problems of his own era would indelibly shape the future.
“What is coming: the revolutions of dark consciousness,” he predicts. “Nightmare of the intellectual poverty of revolutionaries.”
Art and Popular Culture
Serge discourses with equal enthusiasm about art and culture. He scours art galleries, analyzing the famed socialist murals of Mexico. He offers scathing critiques of surrealism and its rejection of disciplined scientific thinking. He knew many of that art movement’s leading lights first-hand, and this only fuelled his disdain.
“Their revolt was nothing but a revolt of literary cafes. The system serves as their justification. Their worldview is nothing but a spiritual game that serves to aggrandize them before the internal mirror in which they admire themselves in private. Theirs is a mutual admiration society…Yet there was, there is, something profound, alive, a kind of painful and daring revelation in Surrealism. It’s just that the Surrealists are rather small compared with their discovery.”
His son Vlady is an artist, and after viewing one of his murals Serge masks paternal pride in a page-long ‘scientific’ analysis, convincing himself that his son’s work transcends that of Diego Rivera — objectively speaking, of course.
While he loves deeply intellectual art, he showed a delight in all forms of culture. He even goes to the movies, and pens his incredulous reflections following a viewing of Superman: “athlete in tights with an S on his chest…[who] controls electricity by flexing his biceps, flies to the stars and blows them to pieces with a head butt. Then he gets back into his sport coat, his felt hat, and kisses the secretary…Mixture of great imagination and unspeakable stupidity.”
Likewise, Arsenic and Old Lace: “This is what they come up with to amuse and relax the crowds that go to the movies?…Nothing is thoroughly thought through and reflection is the least concern of the authors, for whom nothing exists but effects and theatrical business…not truth, not duty, not conscience, not – and here I plunge into the ridiculous – the love of man…”
Sitting around with other revolutionary exiles, he can’t help but wonder what this new generation seeks, since he finds no evidence of it in their popular culture.
“Freedom was a need for us, an essential value. The younger generation no longer knows what that is: the lost need of a bygone era.”
He does, however, recognize that in a world which is rapidly becoming obsessed with new forms of media, the old-fashioned campaigning tactics which worked to bring about the Russian and Spanish revolutions are no longer adequate for a revolutionary.
“In the era of grand planned technology no mass means has any serious chance of imposing itself if it doesn’t in its turn have this technology at its disposal, beginning with the means of propaganda, information, and organization.”
He attends – and analyses in scientific, psychological, fascinating depth over the course of several vividly described pages – thelucha libre, the no-holds-barred Mexican wrestling matches. Even this sparks connections with high politics and intellectual theories for Serge. For instance, the brutes who are booed when they enter the ring to challenge the handsome, more strategically inclined athletes, and who kick and bite and claw their way to dishonest victory, nonetheless find that boos turn to cheers when they win.
“This crowd knows it should honor honesty and skill and condemn brutality, force without art. Above all, though, what counts for it is triumphant force, victory. Conflict between instinct and conscious upbringing,” he writes. “[I]t’s a banal and primordial conflict. Whole regimes, which individual conscience, enlightened conscience, disapproves of, earn praise or acceptation by appealing to instinct, through the seduction of force. The blindness and cowardice of certain intellectuals, even when they aren’t personally interested or threatened, can be explained in this way. Among them, also, the primordial respect for triumphant force; obliterated intelligence tends to confuse it with life itself.”
Like many in the 20th century who struggled to square America’s famed revolution and its widely trumpeted democratic ideals with its actual historical track record, he spends a great deal of time debating the essential nature, and future role, of America in the world. His friend Otto Ruhle argues that Americans are: “totalitarians without knowing it. Millions of people read the Reader’s Digest, that revolting crap, intellectual nourishment of the lowest order. It kills the intelligence. Same newspapers, same radios everywhere, same soaps, same cities. It all ends off by producing standardized men who carry the totalitarianism of weak, emasculated beings in their veins. Anyone who tries to escape has no choice but to go mad, that’s how worthless he feels. The United States is closer than any country in the world to a totalitarianism of ants.”
Serge disagrees. He sees powerful reserves of humanity in the US, and sees them especially in the form of “minorities awakened by a feeling and spirit of opposition.” Nevertheless, Ruhle is pessimistic, his argument “is that totalitarianism will impose itself by the very fact of industrial civilization and crush man for a long time to come. Socialism is essentially humanism. [Ruhle] sees in the Soviet and Nazi regimes nothing but the apogee of capitalism, characterized by the exploitation of labor.”
Serge predicts that having been drawn into the Second World War, America’s renewed global role will lead to worldwide crises, but also eventually to “mass consciousness and the almost complete disappearance of ideological frameworks and movements. The positive side of this: to what extent have the ideas of yesterday, given the force of inertia of those who hold them, become obstacles to a creative empiricism and the appearance of new ideas (to the renewal of socialism)?” He feels, in other words, that the socialism championed by the Russian Revolution has eaten itself alive, and the best hope is for a new socialist movement to arise – one he hopes will rise in the US.
Why did so many people – including the United States government – wait so long to confront fascism? This he blames in part on “the decline of intellectual energy and dynamism of the bourgeoisie”, which led to a form of self-repression. The phenomenon he describes is all too visible in the self-repression of today’s elites and bourgeoisie as the world faces the reality of fascist resurgence and deadly climate change: “they no longer want to confront reality clearly; they wait until they are surprised by events and forced to act.”
On the Russian Revolution
As much as he struggles to understand where the Revolution went wrong, he also struggles to pinpoint the essential qualities which led to the initial success of the Russian Revolution, especially given how many other socialist and communist revolutions never seemed to get off the ground (he witnessed Germany’s post-WWI abortive communist revolutions, and wrote a powerful first-hand reportage published as Witness to the German Revolution,1923; Haymarket Books reprint edition 2011).
Bolshevism, he writes, “was a prodigious human success”: “A period of about sixty years had forged a revolutionary intelligentsia [comprised of a small number of “intellectuals of bourgeois origin” and a large number of “worker militants”]…its general traits: capacity for conviction, unity [of] thought-action, personality not individualism, social consciousness, energy, capacity for sacrifices and desire for victory…[also Superiority of the Bolsheviks:] the weapon of Marxism, intellectual training superior to the old idealisms.
“The main role in the Russian Revolution was played by an intelligentsia characterized by its lack of individualism, its moral sense, its sense of individual life integrated into the course of history, and its objective thought. (The Bolsheviks were superior to other Russian revolutionaries only because Marxism and the spirit of organization provided them with a particularly effective and resistant spiritual armature; they were more complete than the others. And among them Leon Trotsky, the least sectarian, the most artistic, the freest spirit, the least deformed by the narrowness of party life, was easily the greatest.)
“What constituted the strength and the grandeur of the Russian revolutionaries was that they constituted an environment…of the highest quality, formed a cultivated milieu, educated, trained in the Marxist method, animated by a revolutionary passion, profoundly honest – a nearly unique success in history.”
He angrily dismisses those who argue that totalitarianism was or is the inevitable outcome of a socialist or communist revolution.
“Neither the doctrine nor the intentions of the Bolshevik party aimed at establishing a totalitarian police state with the vastest concentration camps in the world,” he writes. “It’s undeniable that [the revolutionaries’ methods] contained the seed of Stalinist totalitarianism, but Bolshevism also contained other seeds, other possibilities of evolution.” The greatness of these other possibilities, he says, is indicated by the heroic sacrifice of those who resisted Stalin, at the expense of their lives.
Understanding Tyrants and Greatness
He often discusses Hitler with his friends, attempting to understand the man. They are torn; several hold the conviction that Hitler must be an objectively great man (albeit evil) to have risen to such a position of power, power being proof of some sort of greatness. Serge disagrees. In these debates one is put in mind of Trump and other populist leaders in the present day. Does gaining power implicitly suggest something about greatness — a wily intelligence, at least? Or is it irrelevant to the true measure of a person?
“I answer that the historical success of a personality depends on completely different factors and that in certain eras men who are clearly mediocre but who answer (by their very mediocrity) a social need can have dizzying careers,” Serge writes. “That anyway, Hitler’s career seems to have been so meteoric through the catastrophes of an ending society.” Echoes of Trump?
He repeats his assertion that Hitler was not a “great man” or exceptional in any way; rather, he was the beneficiary of a “brain trust of German neoimperialism”. To wit: Hitler “became great with the support of the black Reichswehr, reactionary governments, and big capital. He received power without a struggle and has remained in power with the support of foreign finance along with that of British and probably American conservatives. He has benefited from the complicity of international reaction.”
Stalin, on the other hand – was he great? Evil? A traitor to the revolution? Wrestling with this throughout his journals, Serge comes to feel that Stalin didn’t consciously betray the revolution, but failed to recognize his own self-absorbed narcissism. He saw himself as “the saviour of a revolution threatened by ideologues, the idealistic and the unrealistic…He fought them as he could, with his inferiority complex, his jealousies, his terror of men superior to him and whom he couldn’t understand. He cast them from his savior’s path by the only methods he had at his disposal: terror and lies, the methods of a limited intelligence governed by suspicion and placed at the service of an immense vitality.”
Lenin – who tried, unsuccessfully, at the end of his life to sideline Stalin and expose him for the threat he was – had a prescient and “terrible fear of the bureaucratization of the regime,” Serge writes.
Stalin’s “dark genius” lay in his ability “to mobilize, use, and then subdue the human tendency towards inertia and regression.” In his struggle to seize power from Trotsky and the other old revolutionaries, who wanted to continue innovating their revolution, “Stalin all his life stuck to using the oldest psychological forces: the cult of Lenin, the sanctification of the mummy, nationalism, the hierarchization of society, the cult of the Leader-Father, the return to old Great Russian patriotism…” (decades later, Russian president Vladimir Putin would apply the same lessons, drawing on the cult of Stalin instead). The struggle wound up being one “between a revolutionary minority who wanted a dynamic revolution and the large majority who wanted rest”, and Trotsky’s struggle “was the fight of the honest pugilist who is suddenly stabbed in the back”.
His journals are full of friends lost to Stalinist execution squads and Nazi death camps. Toward the end of World War II, when a small measure of victory seems to hearken, he finds it hard to believe. Reading the news of Mussolini’s execution, he writes: “I read the news, surprised that Nemesis finally struck where she should strike, blindly, justly…I lived so many years endlessly learning the deaths of upright and decent men who wanted nothing but a better, more noble future, that the punishment of executioners astounds me, like something I could no longer believe in.”
Cold War Prophet
Serge’s comprehension of politics was prescient: he predicted the Cold War, and even the division of Germany into Soviet and western spheres. And yet he struggled to understand the new totalitarian systems which emerged around and through the world war.
“They are new systems, of extraordinary power, which unite the revolutionary innovations of the plan and collective management with the old methods of appealing to primitive instincts, despotism, and thought control. We know from the Russian example that they can resist famine, near-total unpopularity (Stalin had the peasants, the workers, the technicians, and the thinking elements of the party against him, yet he held out with the support only of the bureaucracy and the repressive apparatus); from the Nazi example that they can prepare and make war with heretofore unknown vigor while emerging from poverty and social disorder; by the Italian example that they can resist when an entire country no longer wants either to resist or support…We don’t know how a totalitarian state dies.”
We don’t know how a totalitarian state dies – this is a point which repeatedly haunts him.
“We know how totalitarian states victoriously resist crises of all kinds and how they combat them; we don’t know how they succumb. Until now experience has demonstrated that they have a capacity for work, combat, and endurance greatly superior to those of the other states of modern times… Totalitarian states push the limits of human endurance far beyond what bourgeois society thinks possible. By simplifying the structure of society, by liquidating the former superstructures and laying bare the essential economic and political gears, they subject men to the rigor of a law that, like natural law, is both overwhelming and obvious. In external and internal conflicts, action being total, the boats are instantly burned, no retreat is possible, and every fight becomes a fight to the death. Totalitarianism suppresses all middle-of-the-road solutions, compromises, and tolerance…one of totalitarianism’s resources is that of counting only with big numbers. It then crushes the individual with impunity and, more often, drags him along, because dealing in big numbers carries with it a self-evident justification, even when it is inhuman and cynical.”
Serge recognizes an ominous truth: corporatist totalitarianism of the Stalinist type risks appealing to regimes everywhere due to its universal adaptability. In today’s world, China might be a good example of the corporate totalitarianism Serge feared in practice: “It plays both the revolutionary and the conservative cards: ‘Conservatives: I am order, hierarchical society, and social peace, and I know how to gun down troublemakers! Workers, peasants, intellectuals: I am the red star, the legend of Lenin, the nationalization of industries, agrarian reform, and security against unemployment! Businessmen: I am profitable deals. Literati: I am huge print runs!’ It talks this double language with a certain cynical security because reality justifies it.” The appeal to be everything to everyone, in blatant obfuscation of the truth, also hearkens to the self-promotion of Trump-style populists.
On Hope and Optimism
Serge wrestles with grim and dark subject matter. Yet despite everything he has seen, his hope and optimism is irrepressible.
“It’s commonly thought that war and social chaos bring in their train man’s return to the savage state and the predominance of antisocial instincts,” he writes, and then goes on to give counter-examples from his own experience of soldiers helping each other. “I tend to believe that from the psychological point of view more humane sentiments than inhumane ones are displayed on battlefields, and that in this way, through the very negation of the respect for human life, a new consciousness pierces through, one more active, more effective, more generous in its capacity for sacrifice and support.”
The Future of Socialism
Isolated from the currents of political activism by the Stalinists and other intellectual cowards Serge concludes that the version of Marxism which drove the Russian Revolution is now dead. But not socialism. He wrestles with the question of how socialism can survive the bastardization which the Stalinists were making of it. He is convinced that socialism will survive, that the revolution is inevitable, but asserts firmly that the socialism of the past cannot serve the future or even the present. It requires a new socialism, and he is scathingly critical of anyone who clings to its old forms.
Above all, socialists should take direction from the masses, not cling to their own elitist bubbles. They must be non-dogmatic, ideologically flexible, and accept a greater diversity and variety of ideas in the socialism of the future.
“I say that it would be a suicidal mistake for the socialist left to isolate itself from the masses; that it’s necessary to meet the masses where they are, as they are, masses who tomorrow will be objectively revolutionary and subjectively moderate. The line I propose is that of the march toward a single Socialist International, rallying all the socialists of the world, with freedom for tendencies and the formation within it of an intransigent left.”
This puts him at odds with other leading socialists of that period.
“Most of the comrades would clearly prefer a tendentious International; that is, a sect where they could feel at home in order to play at conferences, at the leaderism of minorities, etc. This from attachment to the tradition of half-dead parties, from illusions (the hope of rallying large numbers – Julian Gorkin likes to repeat that we’ve seen small groups of refugees become great political forces), from ignorance of social psychology and faith in the seductive correct doctrine, and from a profound doctrinal and moral hardening. What sclerosis of the spirit in these militants! Rather discouraging. Most would be charmed to have a tiny party of thirty thousand men in Spain or France that would believe itself pure and that would be powerless.”
His ideas about how to implement a successful socialist revolution and society vary across his journal entries over the years, reflecting his constant effort to assimilate new information and integrate it into his broader theory of revolution and socialism. But one element is constant, his emphasis that revolutionary socialism is a constantly shifting process. He is exasperated by socialists who stick to arguing traditional socialist theory, and who refuse to accept or integrate new ideas, or be open-minded toward new theories.
Moderates are not (always) the enemy, especially if a revolutionary
movement understands and integrates their perspectives.
“I feel a certain astonishment tinged with discouragement upon seeing what a linear and mechanically traditional understanding the best comrades of our emigration have of revolution,” he writes – and this despite the fact that many of them lived through both the Russian and Spanish revolutions. “One can see the germ of their future defeats in the spiritual inertia of the old revolutionary minorities. If they do not better comprehend our era they are headed only to failure or defeats, the consequences of whose repercussions may reach far beyond them,” he writes.
The notion of two classes warring with each other is outdated, he argues – class has fragmented in hitherto unforeseen ways. Revolutionaries need to take into account a very real counter-revolutionary strain in human psychology: moments of tremendous change are always succeeded by moments of tremendous reaction. Moderates are not (always) the enemy, especially if a revolutionary movement understands and integrates their perspectives.
“[I]f we must expect powerful awakenings of the European masses it must also be admitted that their profound moderation, their immediate practical sense, opposed to combative idealism, and their traditional ideologies will remain important political-psychological factors,” he continues. And above all, understand the cycle: “[E]xplosions of revolutionary energy are followed very quickly by psychological reactions that are manifested by indifference, lassitude, and reactionary tendencies.”
In Russia, the revolutionary miracle was that the revolutionaries seized power during their brief window of opportunity, under the leadership of Lenin who understood this cyclical process. They then used their political control to try to continue the revolutionary transformation of their society, against the current of these tendencies, until betrayed from within by Stalin, who tapped into those very tendencies to seize power for himself.
And despite their eventual defeat under Stalin’s totalitarianism, at least they showed that a different historical template was possible. “[T]he socialist movement…succeeded in healing the oppressed and exploited masses (and the intelligentsia that rallied to these masses) of an age-old inferiority complex of the perpetually defeated,” Serge writes.
An Evolving, Dynamic Socialism
What was key to Serge’s understanding of socialism in his final years — and key to his ability to retain hope in a socialist future despite the dystopianism of the then-Soviet present — was his conviction that socialism could transform itself, shedding its Marxist past to adapt realistically to the contours of a modern, transforming world. This places him in perpetual argument with the old socialists, meeting in their bitter groups and composing impotent manifestos in stilted and archaic language. “I point out that it’s false to write that in a bourgeois democracy the working class has only its chains to lose, and that it enjoys – in Europe enjoyed – real well-being and real freedoms.”
He rejects their vision of the state as an implacably hostile foe — today the state plays an inseparable role in many of the institutions the revolutionaries seek to overhaul. He even criticizes their take on anti-colonialism. They argue that the colonies must pursue their own destiny, free of the influence and even free of the aid of their former colonizers. Serge, while an inveterate anti-colonialist, argues that such a vision is nonsense in the modern interconnected world, and that to simply cast loose former colonies to pursue their own destinies, impoverished and without the capacity to hold their own against the industrialized former colonial powers, would be to do them as much a disservice as those who exploited and expropriated their wealth and labour in the first place.
“[T]he emancipation of the peoples of the colonies can be the result only of close collaboration with the socially reorganized industrial countries – the metropoles on march towards greater justice and humanism.” His trenchant internationalism was “coldly received without debate,” he notes, but history has doubtless proven him at least partially right.
Above all, he says, socialists must move beyond their own bitter little bubbles, and embrace mass movements for progressive change wherever and whenever they emerge. In an aside that suggests greater prescience than the bitter anti-Stalinism in which it is couched, he suggests that it may only be possible to build a true socialist movement – in a place like the United States – once the bastardized and failed Russian experiment has collapsed and wiped the slate clean for a new, untainted version of socialism to arise.
“The old party ideas with their closed systems…are now nothing but inertia, consequently an obstacle to experience and thought,” he writes, warning their perpetuation is the result of self-interest on the part of their advocates. “Condition for life: clear the path, cast aside the old formulas and ghosts.”
Serge wasn’t ideologically invested in proving the
correctness of particular theory or intellectual idea;
he was concerned with building a better world.
“[S]ocialism must renounce the ideas of worker dictatorship and hegemony and become the representative of the large numbers of people in whom a socialist-leaning consciousness is germinating, one obscure and without a doctrinal terminology…in the immediate coming period the essential thing would be the obtaining the reestablishment of traditional democratic freedoms, which are the precondition for the rebirth of the workers’ and the socialist movements. [W]e must try to emerge from the void we currently inhabit, seek the support and sympathy of the democratic masses wherever they are, make ourselves understood by them, and bring our ideas up to date…the years to come will be years of confused struggles in which the socialist movement cannot but be reborn…it must seek influence on the terrain of democracy…and accept many compromises with intransigence of spirit…if the socialist left muddles along in extremism without influence, with a language barely intelligible to people, and an out-of-date ideology dating from 1920 [it will fail].”
His advice mostly fell on deaf ears. But he accepted that with a certain equanimity. “Whatever I might say, agreement is impossible and discussion difficult and sterile. Those possessed of inner flexibility will change beneath the cudgel blows of events; the rest will vegetate in tiny groups on the margins of life (which offers many satisfactions), or will be crushed.
“Socialism is no longer up to date, rendered outmoded by the sciences, technology, and the obscured class struggle,” he admits. And yet, “it’s possible that it can be made current, since what is essential about it remains infinitely more valid than the other ideologies. It seems destined to dilute itself throughout the whole of society and social consciousness.
“We are on the threshold of a long period of confused struggles.”
It was perhaps his origins as an anarchist that enabled him to so fluidly and rationally assess the failures of revolutionary socialism. Serge remained committed and idealistic to the end, yet was profoundly more clear-sighted than his contemporaries about what needed to be done to make socialism up to date, to resist the totalitarian impulse, and prevent socialism from shrinking into irrelevance in the wake of Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution. He wasn’t ideologically invested in proving the correctness of a particular theory or intellectual idea; he was concerned with building a better world, even if that sometimes required strategic adjustments and compromise. His utopian realism was anarchist at heart, honed into a deeply committed pragmatism by years of street fighting and revolutionary struggle.
“If socialism doesn’t vigorously maintain its democratic and libertarian (in the etymological and not anarchist sense of the word) physiognomy it will be torn apart and crushed,” he writes. “The sole natural allies of socialism are among the democratic masses of the countries where bourgeois democracy lives on with traditions predating big capitalism, England and the United States…In the meanwhile, the socialist left contents itself with illusions and involuntary demagogy, its eyes blindfolded by grand principles. The comrades I see here dream of a little Comintern of their own; dream of being carried along by the waves of the masses. They remain isolated and the most clear-sighted see no alternative to the blackest pessimism while affecting a ‘Marxist’ optimism.”
Socialism’s “sole chance for survival and for victory in the face of Stalinist totalitarianism is in intransigence, by sustaining a doctrine of democracy and humanism (excluding state-directed thought); and, in the face of capitalist conservatism, in the struggle for the reestablishment of traditional democratic freedoms, which have become revolutionary,” he writes.
On the Importance of a Sense of History
“Men need a sense of history comparable to the sense of direction of migratory birds,” Serge writes.
This was part of the great and enduring appeal of Marxism, as well as earlier revolutions like the French Revolution. “The historical sense is the consciousness of participating in the collective destiny, in man’s constant becoming. It implies knowledge, tradition, choice, and thus, conviction.”
And yet it lags in comparison to other acquired senses, “because the historical sense enters into conflict with dominant interests”; “for the same reason history remains an enormously imprecise science”. Even capitalist and conservative movements are driven by it (witness neoliberalism, Thatcherites, etc), convinced that they are the natural apogee toward which history has been moving. “A remarkable historical sense tends to crystallize in a few educated men who are thus exceedingly dangerous,” he writes. “A vague, diffuse, tendentious, and groping historical sense gradually and broadly penetrates the spirit of the growing masses. The spirit of reaction, the narrow interests and cultural ties among the masses, mental inertia, fear of reality – all these exercise a countervailing effect, while thought control seeks to coordinate these regressive tendencies.”
Helping to understand the psychology of the masses is fundamentally important, Serge writes, and his analysis has bearing on the contemporary struggles around climate change, populism, and more. Fear plays a vitally important role in politics, he argues, and masses have an innate fear of accepting grim realities – a fear which leads them to delude themselves into ignoring growing crises. They risk their own defeat by succumbing to this fear-induced ignorance: “the fear of seeing the dangers, of becoming aware of the inevitable.. Conflict between instinct and knowledge.” There is “the immense importance of fear during troubled periods of history…Psychologically, the conflict is between fear (primordial anxiety) and consciousness.”
This is an important dynamic, and he seems to be moving toward a recognition of the paradox it produces. On the one hand, it is necessary to see the world with a historical sense – to interpret one’s actions, one’s destiny, one’s set of possibilities and frameworks for action within a historical sense, knowing what strains of thought and events produced it. It provides a clearheaded, dynamic source of inspiration as well as a logic which compels others. Yet it can become self-defeating as well – precisely because multiple actors can see themselves operating within conflicting historical senses.
George Orwell, puttering away on his dystopian masterpieces
on the other side of the world, would no doubt have agreed
with Serge’s observation of the tyrannical use of psychology.
Witness the religious movements, each convinced they were acting in accordance with a divinely preordained outcome. Or capitalists and communists, each convinced they were heading toward their natural position at the apex of history. Yet when one’s faith begins to falter – as it must, in order to evolve and adapt – one can begin to grow convinced that the other side is the one pursuing the ascendant historical mission, and this can lead to defeatism and a refusal to open one’s eyes with a clearheaded sense of reality. One loses the ability, in other words, to imagine other possibilities.
Serge argues that Trotsky’s strength lay in his repeated ability to adapt his thought and ideas in order to continue the revolutionary struggle, but eventually even he reached the point where “real historical lucidity perhaps ceased to be possible, with neither analyses nor syntheses being doable in the rush of events”.
In response to the rise of Hitler and the fascists, so many simply gave up faith that resistance or any alternative was possible, further entrenching the likelihood of their eventual success: “reaction and pacifism threw themselves headfirst and eyes shut into the onrushing catastrophe, clinging to all their delusions in order to avoid seeing the extent of the disaster and avoid imagining what struggles imposed themselves. Yet it was visible, obvious that these struggles would impose themselves and that a policy of shutting their eyes wouldn’t spare a single drop of blood. Failure of the historical sense: fear.”
In an era likewise characterized by reactionary political steps backward, as well as the tremendous effort of conservatives to ignore the reality of climate change, one finds an important lesson in Serge’s analysis the role fear can play in undermining “real historical lucidity”.
For the same reason, he is critical of American socialists who have given up hope, and accepted what they believe is an inevitable American slide “towards its own form of fascism (planned economy, conservative regime, harsh exploitation of labor)…This is a general feeling that bespeaks a dimmed sense of history in the making as well as a lack of courage and an inability to pose problems in clear terms. At bottom they are prepared to accept this fate rather than look clearly at the effort required to make for oneself another possible fate.
And so, they prefer to not see the alternate possibility. A major factor in intellectual myopia: difficult to escape the influence of the immediate and, while breathing the air of an industrial jail, to imagine the air breathed in the mountains. Penchant for bowing before concrete, immediate facts and refusal (fear) of questioning them so as to theorize them and perceive their contradictory dynamisms.”
On the Importance of Personality in Politics
One key problem with orthodox Marxism was its understanding of the role of the individual. Personality matters; individuals matter; and they are not simply the product of their society. “A correct vision of history must take into account the psychology of societies and individuals, even in the analysis of specific events. In daily life we must take into account the characteristics and mentality of groups, of masses, of personalities, and each of us our own personality, which is difficult but not impossible, and in any case necessary.”
Reflecting on the rift between Trotsky and Stalin and the other rifts which divided the former revolutionary leadership in Russia, he comments wryly that while the Central Committee members all considered themselves motivated by “disinterested political concepts” rather than personal ambition, perhaps they all ought to have gone to see personal therapists before each Central Committee meeting. “This would perhaps not have changed the fight, but it would have taken it to a higher level through an increase in self-awareness.”
“Men are psychological beings,” he writes, with emphasis in the original. One of the vanities of the Russian revolution was the anti-psychology movement which pervaded it; psychology was seen as an unscientific bourgeois superstition, and there was a firm belief that the revolutionaries were acting from deeply political, scientific convictions. In fact, Serge counters, psychology is fundamental to human beings’ actions, and it is “impossible to act with them or on them without taking this fact into account.”
The Revolution was throttled by a “psychological drama” (the rift between Stalin and the other revolutionary leaders), he writes, and contemporary history is driven by psychological phenomena – the rise of Nazism in particular. “The present totalitarian times are those of psychology disdained and subordinated to the organization – economic in the first instance – of the state,” he writes. “These are regressive times despite their technical progress, since they affirm the primacy of the organization over the human. Just as political economy was the revolutionary science of the capitalist era, psychology will perhaps be the revolutionary science of totalitarian times. Socialism can no longer ignore it without degrading itself and reducing itself to a kind of sterility.” George Orwell, puttering away on his dystopian masterpieces on the other side of the world, would no doubt have agreed.
On Being a Loser
In February 1944 one senses Serge’s struggle against revolutionary despair reach its crescendo, in an enlightening reflection titled “The Loser’s Trade”. Being a loser is one of the most thankless professions, he notes – it not only leaves the loser with a sense of defeat and bitterness, but it becomes infectious; others sense it, and disdain the losers for being losers – “people feel the urge to give a kick in the ass to the annoying loser who continues to resist.”
He applies the notion to Trotsky, now assassinated, but also then to himself. So many of the Communists refuse to seriously debate Trotsky’s ideas, Serge rages; they seem to care only that “he lost, and that totally discredited him.” So many people, he notes, pretend falsely their attitudes toward winners and losers are rational and dispassionate ones: “Rare are those who simply say: For my part, I’m on the side of the strongest.”
He reflects on historical losers and those who staged comebacks, striving to find some pattern and theory between those who gave up in defeat and those who managed to rally and emerge triumphant despite the odds; one senses really that he seeks this hope for himself. Yet it’s difficult: “problems no longer have the beautiful simplicity of the past. It was easy to live on antinomies like socialism or capitalism. We are now in the midst of a total transformation of the world, in a shifting chaos, surrounded by falsifications, complex facts, uncertain ideas, transitory interests, and violence. How to find one’s place? Nothing obscures consciousness more than interests of the moment, when they are involved in deadly struggles.”
Serge’s recurrent struggle is to find the resolve necessary to not lose hope despite the seeming hopelessness of his present “dark times.” His struggle is one which many of us in the modern era would find familiar.
“Historically, this new tragedy doesn’t seem like it can go on for a long time, but the immediate future is dark,” he writes. The Polish socialist with whom he is conversing – he recalls their dialogue in his journal – agrees. “‘Since dignity and hope are all that is left to save, we’re partisans of absolute intransigence,’ says the Polish socialist. Serge responds: “I answer that when dealing with totalitarians this is the sole attitude that is not only worthy, but useful. In resistance one must be as absolute as they are in order to make them feel that this is a game that requires their total commitment: that is, [totalitarians] must run every risk.
“In the depths of defeat what is left to us is non-consent to the inhuman; the refusal to close our eyes; the refusal to lose hope in ourselves and so in everything. Once we let go of this last rope we [lose everything].”
Truth and Falsehood
Serge considers the phenomenon of duplicity, a characteristic of modern totalitarian systems. “We invented many things in Russia, many disastrous things, and it wasn’t our fault,” he notes. In the violence of the revolutionary period, people became quick to profess certain beliefs, retract them as necessary, retract their retractions, and essentially mould their beliefs to the politically correct sentiment of the moment. Serge, along with a handful of other mostly Trotskyites, chose to stake their political beliefs in open, public conflict, denouncing Stalin and the totalitarian turn the USSR was taking. It led to their persecution, and his eventual imprisonment.
Yet the alternative was that chosen by everyone else – duplicity; sacrificing their integrity by publicly endorsing a totalitarian turn that they knew was wrong. This duplicity — especially among progressives and intellectuals who should have known better — is a malady, he says, which has spread to other regimes and places around the world. To that we might add that it continues to spread across time, to our own era. “How many people serve or collaborate with totalitarian regimes despite themselves, finding inner salvation only in mental reservation: sometimes hateful, sometimes despairing, most often (simply?) cowardly,” he writes. “One can only expect heroic rebellion from a tiny minority driven by exceptional personal qualities and material circumstances.”
Yet sometimes Serge thinks the truth deserves to be repressed. He follows, horrified, the discovery of Nazi concentration camps and the extent of the Nazis’ genocide, and in fact believes it would be better for the world to suppress the memory of what happened. He fears it has opened a Pandora’s Box which might not be possible to contain in future conflicts. “The divulging of such a crime brings with it involuntary contagions whose consequences are unforeseeable,” he writes. “The sole wise attitude to adopt would be, if possible, to destroy even its memory…the truth about man today cannot always be spoken…part of him must be annihilated in order to save that man.”
“The Nazis have marched against the current of all of human evolution, which was advancing from bestiality to humanism. In this sense they have created something new and begun the destruction of the gains of thousands of years of history. The consequences are impossible to predict…” Their systematic approach to genocide was, he said, infinitely the most serious phenomenon unleashed by the war.
In other cases, he expresses sympathy toward the duplicity of those faced with the difficult choices imposed by modern totalitarianism. He defends the anti-Stalinist exiles who nonetheless returned, after Nazi defeat, to Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, knowing they would have to become part of Stalin’s totalitarian empire. Some exiles denounce their decision as duplicitous double standard.Serge defends them.
“They are men hemmed in between self-abdication and heroism. They are playing an apparently hopeless game, destined to be duped, dishonoured, and rejected when they’re no longer needed – or destroyed. They know this. History is also made up of the unforeseen, and you must always, from duty, try your last chance, even if it’s the only one…the fact remains that peoples can’t escape defeats; that apparent submission is sometimes the final means of resistance; that terroristic despotism leaves room only for duplicity, the ultimate defense through hypocrisy, deception, mental reservations, and secret heroism.”
He himself rejected this sort of duplicitous approach and chose outright resistance, but recognizes that not everyone is able to do this.
Conclusion to a Life Richly Lived
In the latter pages of Serge’s journal, he struggles with the conclusion to his final novel, which tells the story of a revolution victorious in the streets yet failing to adhere to its own values and inwardly collapsing under weight of totalitarian tendencies. His novels always emerged from his experience, and he withheld none of the complexity and fears with which those real-life experiences were imbued. And so he struggles with the conclusion to this tale because no positive ending materializes to his own story.
“[I]n reality all the people I have attempted to bring to life seem to me condemned men walking through a fog. They need a solution, I need a solution for them – and there isn’t one. History can only impose its solutions by walking over their dead bodies.”
It’s a grim turn of thought, one echoed by his complex feelings toward Trotsky’s widow Natalia. Meeting with her – his final friend from those revolutionary years – brings forth feelings both fatalistic and defiant: “It’s so strange to be the only two survivors of so great a historic catastrophe. It’s so mad and poignant and devastating that both of us, I think, have the same sensation of a struggle against an immense tomb…In two hours a hundred faces of the martyred rose up between us. I leave carrying with me a crushing solitude, but I didn’t feel crushed by it. This solitude gives birth in me to a hardening stronger than everything.”
For Serge, especially in these difficult later years, writing was life. He mused, in his essay “The Writer’s Message”, on the need to write: “to grasp, imprint, understand, interpret, and re-create life; by exteriorization to liberate the confused forces one feels fermenting within oneself and by which the individual dives into the collective subconscious…perhaps the deepest source is in the feeling that marvelous life is inexorably passing, fleeing and eluding us and the desire to grab it as it goes.”
And yet in this practice as well his thoughts turn fatalistic, questioning what his life has accomplished. In his subsequent essay on “The Difficulty of Writing”, where he reflects on writer’s block and the difficulty of shaking off “the weight of the external and internal censors”, one senses not only his struggle against self-censorship but also his struggle against existential despair.
“To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing an unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result? A rather rich projection against a background of despair; and I prefer practical compromise with the social censors than a deliberate dive into despair. And again: remain reasonable: things can and must change enough before long for me to be able to breathe more freely. Compromise is after all an act of confidence, of a confidence mutilated and hardened, but still alive.”
Serge died in 1947, ostensibly of a heart attack, although some speculate it may have been assassination. The immensity of this loss, to socialist thought and revolutionary history, is summed up in words that he himself wrote in response to the death of his close friend Fritz Frankel in 1944, which hit him hard. He writes that “what is most tragic about death, what is most unacceptable for the intellect, is the complete disappearance of a spiritual grandeur, made up of experience, intellectual elaboration, knowledge, and understanding, in large part incommunicable.”
Serge did his best to communicate his immense intellect and spiritual grandeur to the world. In an era that could well learn from his life and work, it is up to us today to seek the wisdom it offers.