- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Susan Weissman
Verso, $35, 364 pages, illus.

Early in 1919, Victor Serge warmed himself in a sequestered Petrograd apartment by burning the dispossessed landlord's property, beginning with the lavishly printed and bound 133 volumes of the "Complete Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire, 1649-1913." In the catalog of revolutionary vandalism, the act did not rival the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but it was cut from the same cloth. Serge later wrote of his delight in watching the flames.
Born of Polish-Russian parents in Belgium, Serge (1890-1947) would become a prolific writer of novels (notably "The Case of Comrade Tulayev"), short stories, essays, newspaper articles, polemics, and biographies of Soviet revolutionary leaders, and he maintained an enormous correspondence. Torn between the certainties of communist regimentation and the free chaos of anarchism, he conducted a lifelong public wrestling match with his conscience and for several decades enjoyed a vogue among the revolutionary groupies who lurk on the fringes of western academia. Pockets of admirers still exist in several countries, including post-Soviet Russia, where for decades Serge's name was anathema.
In her new study "Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope," Susan Weissman, a professor at St. Mary's College in California, notes that as a young man he hooked up with the notorious Bonnet Gang, a Belgian-French enterprise given to financing anarchist anti-politics with the proceeds from robberies that tended to end in bloodshed. Disinclined to see extenuating political circumstances in the violence, French justice deprived the members of their liberty. Serge was "repulsed by [the gangs] acts," the author writes, but he "sympathized with [its] motives," and, sad to say, had to spend "five terrible years in prison."
We have recently been hearing this kind of lament from the defenders of Cathy Boudin and Sara Jane Olson.
The Danish Red Cross got Serge out of prison and arranged for him to be part of an exchange for the British diplomat R.H. Bruce Lockhart, whom the Lenin regime had arrested in Moscow. Just what the Bolsheviks thought they were getting in Serge remains something of a mystery. He joined the party but soon became uncomfortable, finding it at once too severe and not severe enough. Claiming that the brutal suppression of the sailors who were demanding "soviets without Communists" at Kronstadt in 1921 sickened him, he nevertheless assailed the "foolish clemency" of Bolshevik units that did not execute every captured White officer. He regarded Bolshevism as "tremendously and visibly right" and a "new departure in history," but his hagiographer acknowledges "never satisfactorily resolved the problem of repression and the restoration of democracy."
After V.I. Lenin's death in 1924, Serge gravitated toward the "Left Opposition" around Leon Trotsky, whom the author finds "[su]perior in character to other members of the new ruling group," a man with no use for "gossip, intrigue, slander or treachery." Joseph Stalin systematically carved up this and all other opposition and kicked Trotsky out of the country. Serge spent four stretches in Soviet prisons, clearly a candidate for liquidation. When the Bolsheviks expelled him from their ranks in 1928, he begged for permission to go abroad. Never able to draw a relaxed breath, he waited several years before Stalin inexplicably ordered him released in 1936 the year the Great Terror began in earnest.
Serge had to cool his heels in Belgium for a few months because memories of the Bonnet Gang still aroused passions in France indeed continued to do so into the 1960s, when Joe Dassin recorded a best-selling pop song about the group's deadly exploits. But after the formation of the first Popular Front government in June 1936 Serge went to Paris, where he lived, writing every day and most nights, until the Wehrmacht's arrival four years later obliged him to escape to Marseille.
When Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in August, 1940, only his widow and Victor Serge remained alive among the Left Oppositionists outside the USSR. Stalin was closing in. Dwight Macdonald and the Partisan Review urged the State Department to issue Serge a visa, a request the Federal Bureau of Investigation vetoed. Serge finally received permission to reside in Mexico, where he died in 1947.
Susan Weissman regards Victor Serge as one of the left's heroes and praises his loyalties "to the ideas of the Old Man[Trotsky], with the outstanding difference that Serge proclaimed the death of the Bolshevik Party much earlier than Trotsky." She finds Serge's views, which reflect above all that old-time, pre-Stalin Bolshevism, "increasingly relevant" in today's world.
That's the world in which one doesn't often come across a book like this.

Woodford McClellan is writing a book on the Communist International (Comintern), 1919-1943.

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