The Museum of the Revolution
In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge describes a 1927 visit to Grigory Zinoviev, a high-ranking Soviet official who had just been expelled from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. With his novelist’s eye for detail, Serge writes:
Zinoviev, in his small apartment in the Kremlin, feigned a supreme tranquility. At his side, covered by glass, lay a death mask: Lenin’s head lying abandoned on a cushion. Why, I asked, had not copies of so poignant a mask been widely distributed? Because its expression held too much in the way of grief and mortality; considerations of propaganda compelled a preference for bronzes with uplifted hands.
Stalin’s Soviet Union had no room for sadness or ambiguity. It chose bronze: hard, unyielding and triumphant, public rather than private.
A novelist, poet and journalist, Victor Serge was born in Belgium in 1890, the child of impoverished Russian revolutionaries. He began his political life as an anarchist, but in 1919 he joined the Bolsheviks in Russia, where his international connections and knowledge of French, Spanish, German and English made him an important asset for the Comintern, the organization meant to facilitate a worldwide revolution. An outspoken member of the Communist Party’s left opposition to Stalin, Serge was expelled from the party in 1928, jailed briefly, then arrested and deported to the Kazakh border in 1933. Thanks to energetic protests from French intellectuals, his life was spared, and he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936. In France, he started corresponding with the exiled Trotsky, even though he believed that the Trotskyist movement offered no hope for a “renewal of the ideology, morals, and institutions of Socialism.”
With his literary gifts, psychological insight and proximity to key players, Serge is one of the greatest chroniclers of Europe’s socialist revolutions, and he offers a unique perspective. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he combined political conviction with a willingness to face the contradictions and failures of the Russian Revolution. Of the mid-1920s, he writes, “None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the Party’s need…we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.” But he also writes of his horror when, having escaped to Belgium in 1936 and seen the shop windows full of ham, chocolate and fresh fruit, he understood that socialism had failed to provide for the most basic material needs of the people. When his hopes were disappointed, he didn’t deny reality; he described it.
Though Serge believed that individual existences were of interest only as part of the “great ensemble of life,” he placed considerable importance on personality, observing that “the character, and even in certain cases the direction, of historical facts depends to a very large extent on the caliber of individual human beings.” His memoirs are full of incisive sketches of important figures. Of Trotsky in the early 1920s, for instance, Serge wrote, “No one ever wore a great destiny with more style.” The people Serge describes are not bronze icons, but flesh and blood.
At the end of his life, with political views that were palatable to almost no one, Serge faded into obscurity. He died in Mexico in 1947, a true believer to the end. In his memoirs he writes, “Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to make you dizzy.” But he follows this gloomy summation with the pronouncement: “I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.”
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Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as discussions of Soviet history have opened and deepened, Serge’s work has enjoyed a steadily increasing visibility in the United States, Western Europe and Russia. His books have been reissued in English, French, Russian and other languages, some with new introductions, including one by Susan Sontag. Serge’s work has even been adapted as practical advice for today’s American radicals: in 2005, an ACLU organizer wrote an introduction to a collection of Serge’s writings, What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression: A Guide for Activists, promising “resonance with political activists today who face a new wave of repression under the Patriot Act and racial profiling in the name of the ‘war on terror.’” The Victor Serge Public Library opened in Moscow in 1997, and Serge’s work has helped inspire a new generation of Russian radical leftists.
Serge wrote that in the early twentieth century, “with scientific discoveries that added prodigiously to man’s technological power (without proportionately improving his level of consciousness), we entered into a cycle of world transformation. We entered it as captives of social systems outworn to the point of being unlivable.” In the early years of the twenty-first century, as the world teeters on the brink of disaster—economic, ecological and otherwise—some people are increasingly willing to revisit old utopian ideas. Though many have dismissed it as a failed experiment or misguided fantasy, socialism remains the best-developed theoretical alternative to capitalism. But how can socialist revolution be reconciled with democracy, with the individual rights that seem nonnegotiable after the catastrophes of the twentieth century?
From a socialist perspective, Serge represents the path not taken, the democratic revolution that never was. He argued that the failure to defend freedom of thought and dissent was Bolshevism’s central mistake, and a primary cause of its degeneration into totalitarianism. While he was always critical of Stalin, whom he described early on as “frightening and banal, like a Caucasian dagger,” he was also critical of Trotsky, with whom he broke after publishing an article on the party’s failure to establish the “Rights of Man.” (Trotsky deemed the essay “an exhibition of petty bourgeois demoralization.”) Once the leader of an opposition that was, in Serge’s words, “anchored in the defense of freedom to think, freedom to criticize, and workers’ rights,” Trotsky had become the glorious leader of the tiny, exiled Fourth International, in which dissent was rarely tolerated. Trotsky is still a hero for some socialists who abhor what Stalin made of the revolution, but he wasn’t exactly a model democrat. Serge appeals to socialists who want nothing to do with Stalin but aren’t entirely at ease with Trotsky either—who want to fight capitalist injustice, but also believe in democracy and the rights of the individual.