It doesn’t happen very often, but I love it when I pick up a book simply planning to scan the first few pages and find myself still reading an hour later. It’s wonderful to get completely swept away, and I must say it was completely unexpected when I picked up anarchist Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire, 1951; tr. from the French by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis; 2012). I don’t know why I expected this book to be somewhat dry; this is an NYRB Classic, after all, and one thing I’ve learned is that their books are first and foremost superbly written in a manner that utilizes language to capture the reader.
Please note that I’m not in any way an expert on Victor Serge or his philosophies. While my minor as an undergrad was in modern European history, with a particular interest in the early twentieth century, I’m no longer so naïve as to think those few courses in any way gave me the ability to speak cogently on Marxism or on the Russian Revolution. So this “review” will not engage with the text as a body of philosophy. Just know that it is a fascinating perspective on a fascinating time in history by a masterful writer. I do know that much now.
Victor Serge (Victor Lvovich Kibalchich; 1890 – 1947) was born in Brussells to exiled Russian anti-Tsarists. In fact, this book begins with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, ten years before Serge was born. One of the men executed due to his role in the assassination was Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich, a distant relative. While Serge grew up, his parents kept on the wall a picture of those hanged for the assassination. That said, so powerful are Serge’s impressions from his youth that one feels he came to his views independently of his parents:
Even before I emerged from childhood, I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling which was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape. I felt repugnance, mingled with wrath and indignation, towards the people whom I saw settled comfortably in this world. How could they not be conscious of their captivity, of their unrighteousness? All this was a result, as I can see today, of my upbringing as the son of revolutionary exiles, tossed into the great cities of the West by the first political hurricanes blowing over Russia.
In its structure, the book is a chronological account of Serge’s life. Or, rather, it is a chronological account of the events Serge witnessed and the other revolutionaries Serge knew. There are powerful personal moments, such as the moment when Serge’s younger brother was dying of malnutrition: “I saw him wasting away. ‘If you don’t eat,’ I told him, ‘you’re going to die’ — but I had no idea what it was to die, and he even less so, so it did not frighten us.” And though he and his father “alone together” go to the cemetery, all of this that is personal is rather meant to direct our attention to the common plight of the group. Serge, who says he prefers “we” to “I,” doesn’t allow this memoir to focus on him. After a childhood where he thought life meant “Thou shalt think, thou shalt struggle, thou shalt be hungry,” Serge eventually adds “Thou shalt fight back.” This book is about that fight, which Serge joined very young, and the fighters lost on the way.
The principal opponent: capitalism, a system he saw as inherently corrupt and degrading, and he certainly found people who agreed with him:
“What do you want to be?” the anarchist asked young people in the middle of their studies. “Lawyers, to invoke the law of the rich, which is unjust by definition? Doctors, to tend the rich, and prescribe good food, fresh air, and rest to the consumptives of the slum? Architects, to house the landlords in comfort? Look around you, and then examine your conscience. Do you not understand that your duty is quite different: to ally yourselves with the exploited, and to work for the destruction of an intolerable system.”
Something I found very interesting is the tone in which Serge relates the early chapters of his life, which he wrote toward the end of his life, well after seeing the intolerable Stalinist regime take over in Russia. In other words, he is faithful to the feelings and tone of his youth, even if as an older man he might find some of the things slightly naïve, or at least much more complicated. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because as an older man he still believes in his younger self. Some of his ideas could be steered devastatingly off-course by the wrong person, but he remains confident that his ideas, that his pursuit for a more just society (knowing it was impossible, but what else should one do with one’s time), are correct.
This in and of itself leads to some interesting conundrums that Serge seemed to struggle with. For example, as a youth he wrote: “Life is not such a great benefit that it is wrong to lose it or criminal to take it.” That is a pithy line and easiest to digest if the cause one is dying for or killing for is one’s own. It’s obvious Serge still believes this even as an older man, but he has lived long enough to witness the unjust murder of many in an effort to prop up one of the most terrible regimes in the twentieth century. Through the book, I don’t think he ever fully reconciles his idea that violence is sometimes justified (though he abhorred it) with the idea that what is justified is a matter of perspective.
Serge does offer up some potential ways to get around this, though I don’t find them very convincing. For one thing, Serge was always against censorship. One of the failings of the Russian Revolution was that very soon after the government was toppled, the new government suppressed contrarian thought. It seems that the newly formed government recognized that dissent and anarchism was dangerous; after all, what majestic terrors had they been able to accomplish through just such means? But such suppression of thought went against something Serge felt even as a young man in Paris when he gazed out his window at Rodin’s The Thinker: “The bronze Thinker seemed to me to be meditating on that crime, and waiting to be shot himself. After all, how insolent he was, doing nothing but thinking, and how dangerous if he ever came to a conclusion.”
It’s a danger Serge knew his entire life. In one of the excellent introductions to this volume, Adam Hochschild remarks that Serge’s style is the result of urgency, of having many important things to write but not much time to do it before the authorities, whichever ones he was agitating at the time, would bust in and enact who knows what kind of violence.
And the book is filled with violence. The cast of characters is huge, and it seems that on every page one of them is shot or commits suicide, leading Serge to the conclusion that “my very existence was an infraction of the unwritten law of conformity.”
So, whatever your views on Serge’s ideas, here is a supreme volume where one can engage with such ideas from a clear and articulate mind, and one genuinely compassionate, perhaps a rare combination as the conversations go on in the news these days.