Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Last Years of Victor Serge via his Mexican diaries

The Last Years of Victor Serge via his Mexican diaries
New Left Review 82, July-August 2013
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Victor Serge (1890–1947) spent the last six years of his life in Mexico, joining the exodus from Marseille in 1941 and remaining behind after the War. Here he completed his two most celebrated works. Memoirs of a Revolutionary evokes his vagabond anarchist youth, passage to revolutionary Russia, years as assistant to Zinoviev in the Comintern and Left Oppositionist, prison, exile; a cast of thousands from the Old Bolshevik generation recalled in vivid detail.  The Case of Comrade Tulayev was the most powerful of his ‘documentary novels’ on the turmoil of the inter-war years. Extracts from Serge’s 1944, 45 and 47 diaries had appeared in Les Temps modernes in 1949 and were collected in a 1953 French volume, which also included notebooks from the 1930s. Find a short biography here.

In 2010, three cardboard boxes of his papers were discovered in the archive of his late widow Laurette Séjourné in the small Mexican town of Amecameca. They included letters, drafts, photographs and a bundle of exercise books, tied up with string, covering the years 1941, 42, 43 and 46. Agone has now published the entire collection as Carnets (1936–1947). 

NLR’s selection takes up the narrative of Serge’s life where the Memoirs end, on the boat from Marseille. The notebooks contain thoughts on the world-political situation, impressions of Mexico, often caustic portraits of fellow exiles. Peter Sedgwick, his English editor, has pointed out the influence of Sorel in Serge’s anarcho-syndicalist formation: the Sorelian notion of a moral elite, alien to Marxism, informed his belief that the direction of history ‘depends to a very large extent on the calibre of individual human beings’, hence his remorseless judgements on his fellow men, seen in terms of their fitness for the revolution. 

His political assessments were often wide of the mark. Early predictions of a Soviet defeat and the collapse of Stalin’s regime give way to over-estimations of Moscow’s power; cautious prognostications for a limited social-democratic politics in post-war Europe are followed by speculations on an ‘acceptable’ technocratic collectivism. Serge boasted of conceiving the notion of parallel ‘totalitarianisms’, that most threadbare of Cold War liberalism’s tropes, yet wrote in 1947, ‘If the Soviet regime is to be criticized, let it be from a socialist and working-class point of view’. Of his comrades in the Mexico group Socialismo y Libertad, the French left-socialist Marceau Pivert would become a committed opponent of the Algerian War in the 1950s, while poum veteran Julián Gorkín enlisted with the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Serge’s likely trajectory had he lived beyond 1947 must remain a matter for speculation.

Marseille, winter 1940–41. Narrow back streets dingy by day, lost in the shadows by night, criss-crossed by washing lines draped with clothes strung from the windows. Narrow and slippery, the stone oozing poverty, magnificent ancient mansions now lairs with vast entrances like caverns (carved gates, rue de la Prison). Stench. Pizzas, Greek, Russian, Annamite, Chinese restaurants. Rue de la Bouterie, the brothels with their lights out, Chat Noir, Magdeleine, Lucy, locked doors for the rush of sailors, notices in several languages. At the bottom of the alleyway, the port’s bright lights, spindly masts, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde on the golden rock in the distance, the azure sky.

An Annamite or Chinese procession (funeral, festival?) files past in the rain under banners of cloth and coloured paper. Scampering, the thin, sallow faces of smart but sad coolies.
Lively square, ancient fine houses, baths, the church below the hospital. We go inside to admire the Easter crèche, with all its little figurines at work, sawing wood, shoeing horses, etc. For twenty sous, the figures move.

31 March 1941. People on the Ship. In search of a comfortable corner, the ‘economic emigrants’ have installed themselves between the central deck and the boiler room. Jews with money. Rent the crew’s cabins, stuff themselves, do deals with the personnel, keep to themselves, are suspicious of everyone, play cards, read Clochemerle. We call that corner ‘the Champs-Élysées’ and we invade it partly because it’s sheltered from the wind and the sun. They glare at us.

The foredeck is more crowded but has a slightly chic atmosphere because of a group of filmmakers and wealthy, well-dressed emigrants who behave as if they’re on the terrace of a café on the Left Bank.

The upper deck, which isn’t a deck strictly speaking but a sort of roof, cluttered with the lifeboats, is occupied by the Lams, the Bretons and Vlady. [1] Jacqueline [Breton] sunbathes almost naked and scorns the world which couldn’t care less, and that irks her. Hélène Lam nurses Wifredo, who is ill, with swollen glands, sad, lying under a blanket, his head in his wife’s lap. His eyes like those of an ancient Sino-African child are full of an animal misery. Even though he’s getting better. I sometimes go up, from there you can see the entire ship and the entire ocean. It’s Montparnasse.

In the stern, rough wood tables under the tarpaulins, above the stairs to the hold. Tubs in which René Schickele’s daughter does her washing while telling me about Walter Benjamin’s suicide in Cerbère, in October 1940, after a fruitless attempt to cross the border without a visa; several friends had just made it to the other side, he failed, he lost his nerve. He sent his last manuscripts to Switzerland. He left us a remarkable essay on Baudelaire. Deck chairs, a sort of cowshed on one side, and on the other, the vile shared toilets made of plywood, erected on the deck. Rigging, tools, hordes of kids, washing, bare-chested characters shaving, ladies lying on their deckchairs in the sun. Our German International Relief Association group studies English and debates Marxism. The Stalinists in discreet little confabs around Kantorowicz and his wife, both thin, with sharp profiles, furrowed faces and a gaze that is both hard and evasive. [2] Raucous, cheerful Spaniards. It’s Belleville.

Towards the bow, our German friends and their kids are setting up a kindergarten; it’ll be a little corner of a square in Wedding, which we’ll call Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

The apolitical refugees are afraid of the political ones, whom they respect as dangerous people and despise as people without money. The castaways of Europe on a wrecked ship. A war of manners, or rather of boorishness, fighting over a place at the table at mealtimes, fighting over tables outdoors on the cluttered deck, where we eat. People have to fend for themselves. André [Breton], always noble and appearing impassive—but appalled by all this—repeats: ‘Bastards!’ and makes no secret of the fact that he’d be much happier at the Deux Magots. I rescued an elderly bourgeois couple from a scrum. The man, domed head, wearing glasses, fat and puffed up with respect, for himself and others, tells me he is an Austrian Catholic banker, protected by the Vatican and emigrating to Brazil. ‘What about you?’ What can I tell him? ‘I’m a friend of Mr Trotsky . . .’ Wide-eyed: ‘Oh!’ But he does not stop being polite to me and asking my advice: he’s travelling with two different passports, which one should he use in such-and-such a situation?

6 April 1941. The letters received, sustenance. We’re sailing along the Moroccan coast, low sand dunes. The fringes of the desert. In the distance, the white peaks of the Atlas, stark and rugged. Then the coastline becomes steeper; we are following hills beyond which the Atlas rise, pure, inaccessible, the tragedy of purity in the void.

Towards evening, hills dotted with panther-skin bushes. Africa has its land style as it has its lifestyle. Above these hills, the sky is two colours superimposed, turquoise blue and translucent pink. The stars are coming out. Squatting on ropes, we listen to a Viennese activist talking about the underground movement in Austria under the dictatorship.

Conversation with Claude Lévi-Strauss who describes the police chiefs of São Paulo in Brazil. ‘They are both madmen. One considers himself a noble of superior lineage and collects royal china, autographs of famous people or, failing that, of their secretaries, provided there’s a coat of arms on the notepaper. The other has invented a criminal classification system based on animals: dog-men, cat-men, lizard-men, parrot-men! All that with ultra-modern laboratory equipment.’ We conclude that perhaps it is not as crazy as all that in a field other than criminology.

Calm sea. Germany and Italy declare war on Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs declare that they are going to take the offensive.

25 May 1941: Martinique. Like Guadeloupe, this island is in the hands of a police force recently sent from France, with appointments made in Vichy, but dictated by Paris; in other words, 100 per cent Nazified. [3] The special commissioner of the immigration department arrived from the occupied zone. The two real authorities are: the admiralty, led by senior officers of the Laval–Darlan persuasion, hardline, blinkered reactionaries; and the secret services, very probably under the orders of local German agents. That is the conviction of the people living on the islands and it is also my impression. An atmosphere of suspicion, grassing, informing, wariness. The refugees coming in are scrutinized closely and, in certain cases, must be in danger. Foul play is possible.

The authorities live in panic. Astute pro-German and pro-Vichy propaganda has been very successful. The black population is neither Gaullist nor well disposed towards the Americans; people don’t want change, they fear it. The intellectuals are anti-Vichy, pro-English but daren’t breathe a word. People are arrested and interned for saying anything slightly risky.

The American consul has no influence. He does nothing to facilitate the refugees’ stay or their departure. A French officer warned us: ‘Whatever you do don’t tell the consul that you’re journalists or writers, the Americans don’t want any of you . . . Invent different professions.’

November 1941: Mexico. The Old Man’s Solitude… 

Starting from an immensely deprived childhood, it proceeds to a brief heyday of optimistic identification with the Russian revolution and work in the Comintern, followed by decades of persecution, first in the Soviet Union, as an Oppositionist in Leningrad, and then a deportee in Orenburg, and finally outside it. Even the Trotskyites made him an outcast, although Serge retained an admiration for the Old Man, and died, like him (though not by an assassin's hand), in exile in Mexico.

This is a republication of the 1963 Oxford University Press edition prepared and translated by Peter Sedgwick from Serge's original French text, and the new edition retains Sedgwick's introduction, along with a post-Soviet essay on Serge by Adam Hochschild, a usefully expanded glossary of short biographies, and a number of charming and accomplished pencil sketches of Serge and his friends by his artist son, Vladimir. Vlady, who survived the travails of Europe and ended up with his father in Mexico, also contributes a moving paragraph on Serge's death (by heart attack in Mexico City in 1947 at the age of 57).

Serge's story is often remembered for the vivid portraits of contemporaries dotted throughout the text – revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, all of whom he knew well, Comintern figures such as Angelica Balabanova and Georg Lukács, the American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, French writers such as André Gide and Romain Rolland, and a host of others. Independent non-conformist though he was, Serge knew everyone who was anyone on the European revolutionary and left-intellectual scene in the 1920s. Even awaiting rescue in Spain with other French refugees in 1941, he found himself in the company of Walter Benjamin and shared a villa with Varian Fry (anti-Nazi journalist and director of the American Relief Committee) and the surrealist writer André Breton.

A child of itinerant and impoverished Russian revolutionaries, Serge was born in Belgium in 1890 and spent his adolescence in Paris, doing various manual jobs and consorting with other angry and despairing youths in a "world without possible escape", as Serge characterises Europe on the eve of the first world war. Interned as a foreign revolutionary during the war, Serge was plucked from a French concentration camp in 1919 and sent to Russia – where he had never been – under an exchange negotiated by the new Soviet regime. Though inclined to anarchism and independent judgment, Serge joined the Bolsheviks, becoming close to a number of the leaders, as well as the writer Maxim Gorky, and stayed in the party despite his anguish at the suppression of the Kronstadt rising at the end of 1920. Stalin was never one of Serge's intimates, though he makes a brief early appearance "trying to catch Zinoviev's attention" at a Comintern meeting – "frightening and banal, like a Caucasian dagger", in Serge's memorable phrase.... read more:

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