Mexico City, Mexico
Victor Serge (French: [viktɔʁ sɛʁʒ]), born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (Russian: Ви́ктор Льво́вич Киба́льчич; December 30, 1890 – November 17, 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death. He is best remembered for his "Memoirs of a Revolutionary" and series of seven 'witness-novels' chronicling the lives of revolutionaries of the first half of the 20th Century.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Ideas
- 3 Works available in English
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Sources
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Serge was born in Brussels, Belgium, to a couple of impoverished Russian anti-Czarist exiles. His father, Leo (Lev) Kibalchich, a former infantry trooper from Kiev, was distantly related to Nikolai Kibalchich of the People's Will, who was executed as a result of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Leo, himself a Peoples' Will sympathiser, had fled Russia around 1887 and gone to Switzerland, where he met Serge's mother, Vera Frolova, née Pederowska. She was the daughter of an impoverished petty nobleman of Polish extraction from the Nizhni-Novgorod province. Vera had married a Saint Petersburg official and, after giving birth to two daughters, had received permission to go to Switzerland to study and heal her consumptive lungs, but also to escape the reactionary environment of Saint Petersburg. She fell in love with the handsome, feckless Kibalchich, and the couple wandered Europe, according to their son, "in search of cheap lodgings and good libraries". Victor was born "by chance" in Brussels, where the couple were so poor that Victor's younger brother died of malnutrition before Leonid eventually found work as a teacher at the Institute of Anatomy. The 'Kibalchich myth' of revolutionary idealism and sacrifice dominated Victor's impoverished childhood. He read a great deal, and became interested in socialism and anarchism along with his friends, including Raymond Callemin and Jean de Boë.
Serge's parents broke up in 1905, when he was 15. Living on his own from then on, he and his friends soon joined the Socialist Young Guards (youth section of the Belgian Workers' Party, but soon came to feel that it was not radical enough, loudly protesting the Party's support for the annexation of the Congo. Meanwhile, he and his friends were hanging out at an anarchist commune in the forest near Brussels, where they learned the printing trades and put out a newspaper. They became increasingly involved in anarchism and increasingly under suspicion in Brussels, especially after defending their Russian comrade Hartenstein, who had made a bomb and shot at Belgian policemen at Gand. Serge left Brussels in 1909 and, after a stay in the Ardennes, moved to Paris, where he made his living teaching French to Russians and anonymously translating Russian novels by Artzybachev.
Serge's first published article was written in September 1908. Under the pen name "Le Rétif" ("The Maverick" or "The Stubborn One"), Serge wrote many articles for Le Révolté and, starting in 1909, L'Anarchie, a journal founded by Albert Libertad, whom Serge and his friends considered to be a hero. Serge at this stage was an outspoken supporter of individualist anarchism and illegalism, frequently clashing with the editor of L'Anarchie, André Roulot (aka "Lorulot"), who favoured less inflammatory rhetoric. In 1910, following a schism in L'Anarchie, Lorulot departed and Serge was named as the new editor of the paper. During this time Serge was in a relationship with Rirette Maitrejean, another anarchist activist.
In 1913 Serge was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to five years in solitary confinement for his involvement with the Bonnot Gang of anarchist bandits, although he was innocent of participation in any of their robberies. Several of his comrades, including his childhood friend, Raymond Callemin, were executed and others, like Jean de Boë, condemned to Devil's Island. He was thus in prison on the outbreak of the First World War. He immediately forecast that the war would lead to a Russian Revolution: "Revolutionaries knew quite well that the autocratic Empire, with its hangmen, its pogroms, its finery, its famines, its Siberian jails and ancient iniquity, could never survive the war."
In September 1914, Serge was in the Melun penitentiary on an island in the Seine, twenty-five miles or so from the Battle of the Marne. The local population, suspecting a French defeat, began to flee, and for a while Serge and the other inmates expected to become German prisoners.
Expelled from France on his release in 1917 he went to live in Spain, which was neutral in World War I but was the scene of an attempted syndicalist revolution. It was around this time that he first used the name Victor Serge, as a pen name for an article in the newspaper Tierra y Libertad.
Nicholas II was overthrown in February, 1917, and in July Serge decided to travel to Russia, for the first time in his life, to participate in the revolutionary activities there. In order to get there he returned to France and attempted to join the Russian troops fighting there. He studied art history for two months, but was then arrested for violating the expulsion order. He was imprisoned without trial for more than a year in wartime concentration camps at Fleury (described by e.e. cummings in "The Enormous Room") and at Précigny, where engaged in political discussions with fellow prisoners and first learned about Bolshevism.
Career in the Soviet Union
During the Civil War
Soon after Serge arrived in Russia, in January 1919, he joined the Bolsheviks, having grown disillusioned with anarchism, and believing that anarchism was a good ideal for life but Bolshevism offered the best theory of political change. He continued to support the involvement of anarchists and non-Bolshevik socialists in the revolution, and joined social groups largely containing non-Bolsheviks, such as the circle around the novelist Andrei Bely. While Serge was a staunch internationalist, believing that revolutions in other countries were desirable and even necessary for the survival of the Soviet Union, and wishing for socialism to succeed across the planet, he was concerned about the Bolsheviks’ desire to force world revolution, particularly believing that France was far from revolutionary conditions. He also believed that while revolutionary conditions were ripe in Germany, the necessary revolutionary consciousness was lacking.
Serge lived in Petrograd, the former Saint Petersburg, which was going through a difficult period. At one time he lived in a mansion that had belonged to a noble family. With no other way to keep warm, Serge and his companions began burning books, and he was particularly happy to burn a book of the laws of the Russian empire.
Serge met Maxim Gorky and was offered a position at the publishing house that Gorky was running, Universal Literature. Though Serge deeply admired Gorky, he declined the position. At first he made his living as an inspector of schools and as a lecturer for the Petrograd Soviet. In March 1919 he began working for Grigory Zinoviev, who had been appointed as President of the Executive of the Third International. Serge's knowledge of languages enabled him to help in the publishing of foreign-language editions of the organization's publications, but he was already criticizing what he saw as Zinoviev's bureaucratic tendencies. Serge was a very capable worker in the Comintern and was particularly known for meeting people who visited the Soviet Union from various nations, including Pierre Naville, Gerard Rosenthal, Nikos Kazantsakis and Panait Istrati. He also worked to help those who, he believed, were being unjustly persecuted by the secret police.
Serge married Liuba Russakova, and they had their first child, Vlady in 1920. The Russakovs were a Russian Jewish family who had been expelled from France and had travelled to Petrograd on the same boat as Serge. Liuba's father, Alexander Russakov, was also a revolutionary, who had moved to France following the 1905 revolution, while always continuing to be a worker and returning to factory work after his return to Russia. Liuba herself briefly served as Lenin's stenographer in 1921. Her health problems became a major concern for Serge.
Serge had arrived in Russia during the civil war and the era of war communism. At first he believed that the Soviets could not afford to be merciful to their enemies, and he once criticized officers who let White Army prisoners go without shooting them. This was a reaction to the persecution of communists and other revolutionaries in the rest of the world. However, his positions on such issues soon changed as the government continued to be just as harsh against dissenters after the end of the civil war as it had been during it. Serge soon became disillusioned, and joined with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to complain about the way the Red Army treated the sailors involved in the Kronstadt Uprising. He believed that, with more competent officials in charge of the negotiations, there could have been a settlement between the government and the sailors. However, Serge reluctantly sided with the Bolshevik Party on the Kronstadt rebellion, because, in his view, it better represented the interests of the workers, and the alternative was counter-revolution.
As a libertarian socialist, Serge protested against the Red Terror organized by Felix Dzerzhinsky and the Cheka. Serge also criticized the New Economic Policy, believing that it was counter-revolutionary, though in 1923 he admitted that it had resulted in improved conditions compared to war communism.
In the spring of 1921 Serge briefly withdrew from the government and began a commune on an abandoned estate near Petrograd. However, after three months the commune was abandoned because of hostility from anti-Semitic peasants, who thought that all the residents of the commune were Jews.
Serge then went on a Comintern assignment to Germany, where there was an active Communist Party. Living mainly in Berlin, he witnessed the effects of economic crisis throughout Germany. Though he was still worried about repression in the Soviet Union, his stay in Germany restored his pride in the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution. Though he returned to Moscow to attend meetings several times, he lived in Germany until November 1923, when he was forced to leave after the failed Communist insurrection in October and the fascist coup attempt in November .
Serge harshly criticized the bureaucratic nature of the Comintern and its attempts to determine when revolutions "should" occur on the basis of inaccurate information and dogmatic preconceptions. He criticized the increasing control of the Comintern by the Soviet government, and particularly the factions of Zinoviev and Stalin. He cited the situation in Germany in 1923 as a major example of their mistakes. Along with German communist leaders such as Heinrich Brandler, Serge had worked in Germany to promote a workers’ revolution, which was eventually cancelled and occurred only in Hamburg because the party there had not heard of the cancellation. Serge believed that the working class in Germany was not ready for revolution because it was too moderate. Serge criticized the Social Democrats in Germany, felt that the Communists had poor organization, and predicted the danger of fascism there.
In 1923 Serge became associated with the Left Opposition group that included Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky and Adolf Joffe. Serge was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian way in which Joseph Stalin and his allies were now governing the country. He is believed to have been the first writer to describe the Soviet government as "totalitarian".
Serge moved to Vienna, Austria, later in 1923. Austria was then ruled by the Social Democrats and the Communist Party was so small that there was no possibility of revolution there. However, many Communists were working or in exile in Vienna, and Serge befriended some of them, including Georg Lukács, Adolf Joffe and Antonio Gramsci. Serge watched political events in Russia, Germany and elsewhere, but could participate little, and worked on other pursuits, such as literary analysis.
The Left Opposition
Serge returned to the Soviet Union in 1925. Shortly after his arrival Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, members of the ruling troika alongside Stalin, reconciled with Trotsky, and the United Opposition was formed. Serge was generally supportive of the United Opposition, despite continued disagreements on economic and other matters between its Trotskyist and "Zinovievist" members. Meanwhile, Serge moved to Leningrad (the former Petrograd), where he was actively involved in Opposition groups. Despite the support of Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin's allies were gaining more and more power, and the opposition often had to meet in secret. Serge soon realized that the defeat of the opposition was inevitable, and by 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he concluded that the reaction had been completed. He often compared the defeat of the Left Opposition to the Thermidorian reaction that followed the French Revolution.
Serge was not one of the political or theoretical leaders of the Left Opposition, but he worked tirelessly to promote it through both writing and activism. At that time he agreed with Trotsky that their fight should remain within the party, but he later wrote that "party patriotism" had helped to defeat them, while admitting that there were no other organizations with mass support that could have challenged the party. Serge was one of the few members of the opposition who could speak at Communist Party meetings without being shouted down by hecklers, though he was given only five minutes to speak at each meeting.
In late 1927 most of the Opposition, including Trotsky and Zinoviev, was expelled from the party, and some, led by Zinoviev, capitulated in order to return to the party. Serge believed that the expulsion of the opposition meant that the party was completely broken, and refused to support the capitulation. He believed from this point onwards that the ban on additional political parties was wrong.
After Stalin's victory
In 1928 Serge was expelled from the Communist Party, largely because of his protests against the Soviet Union's policy on China, and officially because of his protests over the party congress's expulsion of the Opposition. He was now unable to work for the government. Over the next few years he spent much of his time writing Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930), completing two novels, Men in Prison (1930) and Birth of Our Power (1931), and translating Vera Figner's Memoires d'un révolutionnaire into French. These books were banned in the Soviet Union, but were published in France and Spain. He also commented on and attempted to investigate the murders of political dissenters. Amid the growing poverty and peasant resistance, which was brutally crushed, he also wrote commentaries on these aspects of Soviet life.
Serge was arrested in March 1928 and spent two months in jail without charge. While some of the French intellectuals who had been among his close comrades, such as Henri Barbusse, harshly criticized his continued opposition to Stalin, others continued to help him and soon won his release. Shortly after his release, Serge suffered serious health problems, particularly an intestinal occlusion of which he almost died, and this drove him to devote himself to writing. During the next five years of "precarious liberty" he worked at the Lenin Institute, translating the works of Lenin into foreign languages, though his translations were closely monitored by the censors and he was unable to receive any credit. He lived in a communal apartment in Leningrad with at least three people who openly monitored him as they worked for the GPU. Serge's family was targeted for harassment, particularly his father-in-law Alexander Russakov, who was denied work, arrested for a time and denied a bread card. He died in 1934. Serge's wife Liuba Russakova was driven insane. Serge could not meet friends and relatives openly, because they could get into trouble for contacting him, so when he visited Moscow he often slept in empty houses. However, he occasionally met the remaining free opposition members secretly, and had some contacts with former friends who worked for Stalin. He also worked as hard as possible to smuggle anti-government material out of the Soviet Union. Trotsky received his last communication from the Soviet opposition from Serge in 1929.
Serge was arrested and imprisoned again in March 1933. This time he did not receive a quick release. The arrest occurred while Serge was in the street attempting to buy medicine for his wife. He was held and interrogated at the Lubyanka prison, where he spent 85 days in solitary confinement. The GPU claimed to have obtained a confession from his sister-in-law and former secretary, Anita Russakova, that she and Serge had been involved in a conspiracy led by Trotsky. Serge knew from his contacts in the Communist Party that if he signed the confession he would be executed. The GPU's claim was later proven to be entirely false (though Anita Russakova herself was arrested in 1936). Eventually the GPU dropped this part of the case, stating that the "evidence from Anita" was not necessary, though Serge never knew that she had not made any confession. Serge never signed a confession of his own, though he did eventually sign a statement agreeing to his sentence of three years in Administrative Exile in Orenburg on the Ural River.
As he travelled to Orenburg Serge was finally able to meet and have discussions with Left Oppositionists who were also being deported. Orenburg was an impoverished town and he had to struggle for food. He could not work because he refused to declare his support for the general line of the party. He depended on parcels of food from his wife and money from the sale of his books in France. However, the GPU could confiscate his mail at any time, and after his first year in Orenburg they largely cut off mail delivery. Serge was able to address manuscripts to the French writer Romain Rolland, who was sympathetic to Stalin but was against Serge's repression, but many manuscripts that Serge tried to send were 'lost' (that is to say confiscated by the GPU). Paradoxically, the postal insurance payments on the missing packages help Serge survive.
Serge's wife and their son Vlady joined him in Orenburg in 1934, but he sent his wife back to Moscow so that she could seek treatment for her mental illness. In Moscow she gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Jeannine. Vlady stayed with Serge. After their mail was cut off they subsisted on a soup of cabbage, water and salt. Serge became gravely ill at the end of 1934 and spent time in a hospital under terrible conditions. Despite these difficulties, he was able to make friends with many of the deportees who were also political prisoners. His novel Midnight in the Century is based on his time in Orenburg.
Noting that the Soviet Union was in economic recovery by 1935, Serge predicted that Stalin would choose normalization, but by 1936 the terror was expanding, using the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934 as a pretext. (Serge believed that Kirov had been killed by an assassin acting alone, with no involvement by either the opposition or Stalinists, though more recent research has indicated that the assassination was almost certainly arranged by the regime.)
Protests against Serge's imprisonment took place at several international conferences, most notably the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in 1935 in Paris. Protests came from intellectuals of various political ideologies, including Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac, Boris Souvarine, André Gide and Romain Rolland. Serge was able to correspond with Gide, and had a strong influence on him, later telling Gide to "keep [his] eyes wide open" while visiting the Soviet Union in 1936. Rolland corresponded with Genrikh Yagoda about Serge's manuscripts, eventually visited the Soviet Union and had meetings with Stalin during which Serge was mentioned. The Serge case caused the Soviet government considerable embarrassment and in 1936 Joseph Stalin announced that he was considering releasing Serge from prison. Pierre Laval, the French prime minister, refused to grant Serge an entry permit, but Emile Vandervelde, a veteran socialist who by then was a member of the Belgian government, managed to obtain Serge a visa to live in Belgium.
Serge was ordered to return to Moscow and arrived there on April 12, 1936. As he prepared for departure from the Soviet Union, he attempted to get permission to take his manuscripts with him, but they were taken from him. He left the country safely, along with his wife and children, but their relatives were not so fortunate: Anita Russakova spent 25 years in a gulag (and was eventually able to give her version of events after 1989), while Serge's sister, his mother-in-law and two of his brothers-in-law all died in prison.
In Belgium and France
Soon after Serge's arrival in Belgium he immediately began corresponding with anti-Stalinist socialists, including Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. His mail was still frequently intercepted, both by Stalinist agents and spies for western countries. Trotsky welcomed Serge warmly, gave him work as his French translator, and urged him, through his emissary A. J. Muste, to join the IVth International. However, Serge found the organization to be sterile and sectarian. Meanwhile Trotsky was having many disagreements with other non-Stalinist leftists, and was unhappy that Serge continued to associate with his critics. Former GPU operatives like Elsa Reiss also distrusted Serge because they felt that he could not have been released unless Stalin thought that he would be useful. These allegations were untrue, but would cause Serge difficulties.
Serge's escape from the USSR preceded by a few months the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and Stalin's first Moscow show-trial of Lenin's companions. Thanks to his own experience of GPU interrogation, Serge was able to analyse and unmask the 'mystery' of the false confessions, but the big newspapers rejected his truthful testimony for fear of offending the Communists, who were part of the anti-fascist Popular Front alliance. Moreover, until mid-1937, Serge was stuck in Brussels, deprived of his Soviet passport and still banned in France. Serge's testimony about Russia appeared in the Belgian union paper La Wallonie, in the small syndicalist journal La Révolution proletarianne, and in two books about Soviet Communism, From Lenin to Stalin (1937) and Destiny of a Revolution (1937) which have remained classics.
During this time, coinciding with the Spanish Civil War, Serge was the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) correspondent in Paris. He warned the POUM leaders, like Andrès Nin, that Stalin was planning Moscow-style treason trials for them in Spain, but they failed to heed him and take precautions.
Along with his political writings, Serge also published a volume of poems, Resistance (1938). Many of these poems were actually written in Russia, but the manuscripts were among those confiscated from him and he reconstructed them from memory. In 1939 he published "Midnight in the Century," his novel about deported Oppositionists in 'Black Waters' (Orenburg).
Around the time of Serge's arrival in France Mark Zborowski, known as "Etienne," was becoming a powerful person in the French Trotskyist movement, as a confidant of Leon Sedov. Zborowski, who turned out later to be a GPU agent, successfully used Serge's disagreements with other Trotskyists to spread distrust of Serge within the Trotskyist movement, a distrust that further envenomed Trotsky's relations with Serge. However, their political break was based on differences over two topics: the role of the POUM in the Spanish revolution (which Serge defended) and the Bolshevik's brutal repression of the 1921 revolt of the Kronstadt sailors (which Serge criticised). The Serge-Trotsky correspondence (including private laters and public polemics) fills a volume, and after Trotsky's death Serge collaborated with his widow, Natalia Sedova, on an authorized biography: "Life and Death of Leon Trotsky" (1947).
After France was invaded by Germany in 1940, Serge, together with his son, Vlady Kibalchich, and his partner, Laurette Séjourné, managed to escape to the Unoccupied Zone in the South. Serge's wife Liuba had long been confined to a mental institution, their daughter was being cared for by a couple in the country. (Liuba remained in France until her death in 1985. Jeannine was brought to Mexico by Laurette Séjourné in 1942 and lived there until her death in 2011). Serge, Vlady and Laurette spent the winter of 1940–41 at the Villa Air Bel in Marseille, which they shared with Varian Fry, of the American Rescue Committee, the Surrealist André Breton and his family, Daniel Bénédite, Maryjane Gold and others. With both the Gestapo and the GPU on his trail, Serge was desperate to leave France, but as an undocumented Russian with a Communist past, he faced the nightmare of what Trotsky famously called 'A world without a visa.' At the last possible moment, thanks to the efforts of Dwight and Nancy MacDonald in New York and Julan Gorkin in Mexico, Serge and Vlady were able to leave Marseille in the steerage of the last ship out (on which Breton and the anthropologist Levy-Strauss were cabin passengers) and begin a six-month odyssey to the Caribbean, where they were imprisoned in Martinique and the Dominican Republic, eventually arriving in Mexico several months after Trotsky's assassination in Mexico City.
The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during Serge's travels to Mexico, and Gorkin commissioned him to write a book on the subject ("Hitler Contra Stalin") which was published in Mexico City. However, agents of the Russian Embassy, furious at Serge's critical analysis, soon bought out the publishing house and made sure that all doors to journalism were closed to Serge, who as a result often had little money for food. He was supported in part by his partner Laurette Séjourné, who arrived from France with his daughter Jeannine, and he developed friendships with some other European exiles including the German Council Communist Otto Ruhle, members of the exiled POUM, the German novelist and hero of the International Brigade, Gustav Regler, the French Socialist Marceau Pivert, and the Franco-Polish novelist Jean Malaquais. His relations with Trotsky's widow Natalia Sedova were strained at first. He continued to receive support from some American intellectuals, such as Dwight Macdonald and John Deway, and his writings were published in Partisan Review and the New International in the US; he was also the Mexican correspondent for the New Leader.
The Communist establishment publicly denounced him as a Trotskyist, and he was subjected to strong criticism by the Mexican press and by the veteran Communist propagandists Otto Katz (writing under the nom de plume André Simone) and Paul Merker. Serge was charged with being a fascist secret agent, just as Trotsky had been. A public meeting at which Serge was to speak was broken up by an armed mob of thugs sent by the Mexican Communist Party. His friend Enrique Gironella of the POUM was seriously wounded, and Serge barely escaped with his life. However, he found support from the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, participated in the group Socialismo y Libertad, and co-authored Los problemas del socialismo en nuestro tiempo with Marceau Pivert and Julián Gorkin.
After the United States and the Soviet Union became temporary allies in 1942, criticism of Serge spread to the American press, and though he had staunch defenders there, his ability to defend himself was limited by the fact that he was still distrusted by many Trotskyists. Serge and his allies in Mexico were also victims of several assassination attempts by the GPU and Mexican Stalinists.
As Serge became increasingly unable to publish articles, he continued to write novels, including The Long Dusk, concerning the fall of France to the Nazis, and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, about the Stalinist purges (starting with the killing of Sergei Kirov). His autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, was first published posthumously in Paris in 1951.
Serge's health had been badly damaged by his periods of imprisonment in France and Russia, but he continued to write until he died of a heart attack, just after entering a taxi in Mexico City, on 17 November 1947. Having no nationality, no Mexican cemetery could legally take his body, so he was buried as a 'Spanish Republican.'
Several controversies have surrounded the end of Serge's life. There have been suspicions that Serge, who was on the GPU assassination list, was poisoned on Stalin's orders. However, there is no evidence to indicate this. It has also been rumoured that Serge had abandoned socialism, because a few weeks after his death André Malraux published excerpts of a personal letter written six days before his death, implying that he would join him in support of the Gaullist cause. Serge's defenders point out that Serge wrote to Malraux, who was an editor at the Gallimard publishing house, as a friend attempting to reestablish a relationship and eager get his novel published in France and the Serge's words were taken out of context. Serge's last published articles, written within weeks of his death, reiterate his support for the Bolshevik Revolution and warn his comrades against trucking with American-style anti-Communism.
On the Russian Revolution and the Civil War
Year One of the Russian Revolution presents Serge's interpretation of the events that happened in Russia during his second imprisonment in France. He refutes the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was a coup d'état, explains that the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were necessary. He also emphasized the role of Germany in the bloody repression of the democratically elected Finnish revolution and that of the Allies in arming the White Terror, foreshadowing the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik government's view that it was necessary to institute the Red Terror. Serge was one of the few historians of this period to give prominent attention to the role of Finland in early Soviet history and to point to the repression of the German Revolution in 1919 as closing the period of Communist expansion.
On the rise of Stalin
Serge became a major historian of the struggles of the Left Opposition. He stated that around 1926 some oppositionists felt that Trotsky could have organized a coup, as he was still supported by the Red Army. However, Trotsky feared (and Serge agreed) that such a military revolution would only create a dictatorship similar to that of Napoleon Bonaparte after the French Revolution. Serge saw the party as developing a kind of religious feeling among many of those who were expelled, so that expulsion -- 'political death' --seemed to them like excommunication from a church. Serge's biography "Portrait de Staline" was published in 1940, but suppressed in France. His portrait of a very human Stalin in "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" is considered realistic.
On the Stalinist economy
Beginning in the late 1920s, Serge helped to lead the anti-Stalinist Left's criticism of wasteful resource management in the Soviet economy, along with many other writers including Christian Rakovsky and Leon Trotsky. Serge's writing includes many examples of inefficient factories, homes and other buildings being built, as well as inefficient machines. He also drew attention to the fact that, while the Moscow subway stations were architecturally grand, they had no benches for tired workers. He criticized the bureaucrats who approved these projects out of political loyalty, and stated that these bureaucrats, though they claimed to be Communists, did not really care about the workers. Like many other Left Oppositionists, he pointed out that Stalin had no authentic plan, but instead shifted policies erratically.
On State Marxism
Serge's libertarian tendency made him doubt the ability of the Soviet Union and any other state to utilize an ideology, no matter how scientific, without it being simultaneously utilized in the repression of free thought:
"I do not, after all my reflection on the subject, cast any doubt upon the scientific spirit of Marxism, nor on its contribution, a blend of rationality and idealism, to the consciousness of our age. All the same, I cannot help considering as a positive disaster the fact that a Marxist orthodoxy should, in a great country in the throes of social transformation, have taken over the apparatus of power. Whatever may be the scientific value of a doctrine, from the moment that it becomes governmental, interests of State will cease to allow it the possibility of impartial inquiry; and its scientific certitude will even lead it first to intrude into education, and then, by the methods of guided thought, which is the same as suppressed thought, to exempt itself from criticism. The relationships between error and true understanding are in any case too abstruse for anyone to presume to regulate them by authorty[...] Our great Marxists of Russia, nurtured on Science, would not admit any doubt concerning the dialectical conception of Nature- which is, however, no more than a hypothesis, and one difficult to sustain at that."
During the late 1920s, around the time of the decline of the Left Opposition and Serge's expulsion from the party, Serge spent a great deal of time and energy writing about China. China had an attempted revolution around that time but it was stopped by the Comintern, which ordered the Chinese Communists into a disastrous alliance with the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang soon betrayed the Communists and massacred them. Though Serge was never able to visit China, he drew from the reports of those who had visited China for his analysis. Serge noted that the Kuomintang had developed a bureaucratic authoritarian structure similar to that of the Soviet Communist party and the Comintern under Stalin. He argued that the proletariat needed to make an alliance with the peasants in a way that would depart from liberalism and nationalism. He also praised the early works attributed to Mao Zedong, who was not well known at the time. Serge's works on China influenced the French intellectual debate on China and also the later writings of Trotsky on China.
Serge always maintained that writers and artists needed free expression, no matter what their political views were. In this opinion he was supported by the prominent Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, with whom he disagreed on economic issues and many other matters. Even after committing himself to Communism, Serge maintained friendships with anarchist, Christian and non-political artists, often considering them to be superior to the artists fostered by the state. When unable to participate in politics, during his time in Vienna and when imprisoned, Serge wrote essays about Soviet art and culture, and analyzed the contributions of many early Soviet writers and artists. He was also influenced by Trotsky's views on Soviet culture, but differed slightly with Trotsky's blanket rejection of the idea of a proletarian literature arising before the achievement of socialism (whose literature would be 'classless'). Serge insisted that since the 'period of transition' to socialism might be prolonged, the army of the world proletariat, like the armies of antiquity, would have its 'bards,' a role he was himself to play. His series of witness-novels, chronicling the tragedy of several generations of revolutionary militants, have been called "the closest thing to what the Soviet literature of the 1920's might have been" if it had not been repressed under Stalin.
Works available in English
- The Long Dusk (1946) Translator: Ralph Manheim; New York : The Dial Press. Translation of Les dernier temps, Montreal 1946.
- The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1967) Translator: Willard R. Trask; New York : New York Review of Books Classics. Translation of L'Affaire Toulaev. Paris 1949.
- Birth of our Power (1967) Translator: Richard Greeman; New York : Doubleday. Translation of Naissance de notre force, Paris 1931.
- Men in Prison (1969) Translator: Richard Greeman; Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Translation of Les hommes dans le prison, Paris 1930.
- Conquered City (1975) Translator: Richard Greeman; Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Translation of: Ville conquise, Paris 1932.
- Midnight in the Century (1982) Translator: Richard Greeman; London : Readers and Writers. Translation of S'il est minuit dans le siècle, Paris 1939.
- Unforgiving Years (2008) Translator: Richard Greeman; New York : New York Review of Books Classics. Translation of Les Années sans pardon, Paris 1971.
- Resistance (1989) Translator: James Brooks; San Francisco: City Lights. Translation of Résistance, Paris 1938.
- From Lenin to Stalin (1937) Translator: Ralph Manheim; New York: Pioneer Publishers.
Translation of De Lénine à Staline, Paris 1937.
- Russia Twenty Years After (1937) Translator: Max Shachtman; New York: Pioneer Publishers.
Translation of Destin d'une révolution, Paris 1937. Also published as Destiny of a Revolution.
- Memoirs of a Revolutionary (2012) Translator: Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis; New York: New York Review of Books Classics. Translation of Mémoires d'un révolutionnaire, 1901–1941, Paris 1951.
- Year One of the Russian Revolution (1972) Translator: Peter Sedgwick; London: Allen Lane. Translation of L'An 1 de la révolution russe, Paris 1930.
- The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (1973) (with Natalia Sedova Trotsky) Translator: Arnold S. Pomerans; Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Translation of: Vie et mort de Leon Trotsky, Paris 1951.
- What Everyone Should Know About State Repression (1979) Translator: Judith White; London: New Park Publications. Translation of Les Coulisses d'une Sûreté générale. Ce que tout révolutionnaire devrait savoir sur la répression, Paris 1926.
Non-fiction: collections of essays and articles
- The Century of the Unexpected – Essays on Revolution and Counter-Revolution (1994) Editor: Al Richardson; special issue of Revolutionary History, Vol.5 No.3.
- The Serge-Trotsky Papers (1994) Editor: D.J. Cotterill; London: Pluto.
- Revolution in Danger – Writings from Russia 1919–20 (1997) Translator: Ian Birchall; London: Redwords.
- The Ideas of Victor Serge: A Life as a Work of Art (1997), Edited by Susan Weissman, London: Merlin Press.
- Witness to the German Revolution (2000) Translator: Ian Birchall; London: Redwords.
- Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution (2004) Translator and editor: Al Richardson; London: Francis Boutle.
- Kronstadt '21 (1975) Translator: not named; London: Solidarity.
Sources: British Library Catalogue and Catalog of the Library of Congress.
- Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds.) George Orwell: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1940–1943), (Penguin)
- Susan Weissman, Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, Verso, London 2001 p. 321:Victor Serge, Mémoires d'un révolutionnaire, 1901–1941, Seuil, Paris 1951. Translated Peter Sedgwick, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford University Press, 1963.
- The Guardian, 17 August 2012
- Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Pg.441. New York Review Books, 2012.
- Serge, Victor (1963). Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901–1941. London: Oxford UP. p. 220.
- Susan Weissman Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (Verso, 2001).
- Adam Hochschild Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels (Syracuse University Press, 1997), "Two Russians," pp. 65–87.
- Susan Weissman: Victor Serge. A Political Biography, London [etc.] : Verso, 2nd edition 2013, ISBN 9781844678877
- Victor Serge Internet Archive in the Marxists Internet Archive
- Victor Serge: Year One of the Russian Revolution in Marxists Internet Archive, 2005. Translation, editor's Introduction, and notes © 1972 by Peter Sedgwick. (Retrieved April 5, 2005)
- Victor Serge: From Lenin to Stalin
- Bulletin of the Russian Opposition: "Victor Serge and the IVth International". Statement criticising Serge by the editors of the Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, writing in Quatrième Internationale, April 1939. Source: Victor Serge & Leon Trotsky, La Lutte Contre le Stalinisme. Maspero, Paris, 1977. Translated for Marxist Internet Archive by Mitch Abidor in 2005. Retrieved April 28, 2005.
- Peter Sedgwick: "The Unhappy Elitist: Victor Serge's Early Bolshevism", History Workshop Journal, No. 17, Spring 1984. Available online at What Next? Marxist journal. Retrieved May 11, 2005.
- Peter Sedgwick: "Introduction" to Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary
- Susan Weissman: "Introduction" to Critique 28/29: The Ideas of Victor Serge: a Life as a Work of Art (Edited by Susan Weissman) (Retrieved March 14, 2007.)