'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Last Years of Victor Serge via his Mexican diaries
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.
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
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.  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.  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.
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
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.
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
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.  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
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.’
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: