Richard Greeman


Victor Serge and the Novel of Revolution


Originally written for the Serge Centennial Colloquium at the University of Brussels.
Published in Socialism (Brussels), No.226-227, July-October 1991.
Kindly provided by the author.
© 2002 Richard Greeman. Published here with his kind permission.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

1. Death and Rebirth

Victor Serge experienced the rebirth of his vocation as a writer under circumstances intimately connected with two experiences of death. The first – which he characterized as his “political death” – occurred in April 1928, when the Russian Communist Party expelled him for refusing to abjure his Trotskyist views and the GUP arrested him. At the age of 37, Victor had been a full-time revolutionary for twenty years and a dedicated Communist for nearly ten. His only desire was to continue to serve the revolution, then entering its most serious crisis since the Civil War had ended in 1921. Yet precisely because he and his Oppositional comrades saw themselves as the only living elements remaining in the Party, they were doomed, condemned to inactivity, isolation, persecution and ultimately death by what they perceived as a self-serving caste of bureaucratic parvenus who, under Stalin, were imposing their reactionary dictatorship on the Party and the International.

For men like Serge, in a real sense expulsion meant a loss of identity and reason for living. Henceforth, deprived of political activity and penniless, Victor would devote himself to writing as a way of surviving and of participating indirectly in the struggle.

Victor’s second encounter with death occurred a few weeks later. Shortly after he was released from prison – as a result of the scandal his arrest provoked in Paris as well as of his own uncompromising attitude – Serge was struck down by severe abdominal pains and spent twenty-four hours “face to face with the Grim Reaper” [“en tête à tête avec la camarde”]. [1] In the hospital his delirium was interrupted by a moment of “rich and tranquil inner lucidity” [“une lucidité intérieure calme et riche”]. As he recalled in his Memoirs:

I reflected that I had labored, struggled, and learned an enormous amount, without producing anything valid or lasting. I told myself, “If I chance to survive, I must be quick and finish the books I have begun: I must write, write ...” I thought of what I would write, and mentally sketched the plan of a series of witness-novels about these unforgettable times. [je pensai que j’avais énormément travaillé, lutté, appris sans produire rien de valable et de durable. “Si par hasard, me dis-je, js survis, il faudra finir vite les livres commencés, écrire, écrire ...” Je songeai à ce que j’écrirais, j’esquissait mentalement le plan d’un ensemble de romans-témoignages sur mon temps inoubliable ...”] [2]

The next morning the doctor told him he would live. “I had made a decision, and that is how I became a writer” [“J’avais pris une décision et c’est ainsi que je devins écrivain.”] Many years later, reflecting on the death of a psychoanalyst friend, he noted in his diary:

...the most tragic thing about death, the most unacceptable for the intelligence, is the complete disappearance of a greatness of spirit composed of experience, intellectual elaboration, knowledge and comprehension of which a great part is incommunicable ...It was in Leningrad, at Mary Hospital in 28, dying (I really was and I knew it) that I made the resolution to write and if possible lasting works, in any case things deserving to last for some time. My previous activity appeared to me suddenly as futile and insufficient. The impulse which I was given then – more precisely which was born within me – was so powerful that it has lasted until this day ...

... le plus tragique de la mort, le plus inacceptable pour l’intelligence, c’est la disparition complète d’une grandeur spirituelle, faite d’expérience, d’élaboration intellectuelle, de connaissance et de compréhension, en très grand partie incommunicable ...C’est à Leningrad, à l’hôpital Marie, en 28, mourant (je l’étais réellement et le savais) que je pris la résolution d’écrire et si possible des choses durables, en tout cas des choses méritant au moins une certaine durée. Mon activité antérieure m’apparut tout à coup comme futile et insuffisante. L’impulsion que je reçus alors – plus exactement qui naquit en moi – fut d’une telle vigueur qu’elle s’est maintenue jusqu’à ce jour ... [3]

In a sense Serge’s Memoirs give us two versions of his reawakening to his calling as a writer. According to the first version, his decision to write can be seen as a kind of pis aller or substitute for political action (he tacitly equates it with “taking part in the work of industrialization.”) The second version has all the earmarks of a classic conversion experience: death, rebirth, and the inner compulsion to bear witness. Generations of book reviewers, superficially familiar with Serge’s biography, have assumed the former version and consequently treated his novels, written between 1929 and 1947, as little more than fictionalized memoirs or history produced by a talented political journalist. On the other hand, a few discerning contemporaries, among them Léon Werth [4], Emmanuel Mounier [5], and Pierre de Boisdeffre [6], were able to see past the stereotype of the politician manqué and recognize in Serge a dedicated literary artist with a profound and original vision.



2. Serge’s Place in World Literature

Today, we can see more clearly that, whatever the circumstances of his decision to write, Serge’s artistic vocation was based on an elevated conception of the writers’ mission, a mastery of his craft based on a long and serious apprenticeship, and – as will soon be obvious – a unique situation in literary history. For Serge not only developed as a specifically socialist artist devoted to bearing witness to the grandeur and the tragedy of the Russian Revolution (as Vallès did for the Paris Commune of 1871), he was the only representative of the Soviet literary movement of the 1920’s who managed to survive and write truthfully during the Stalinist era.

Closer examination reveals that Serge already had deep roots in both the French and Russian literary traditions before he chose to devote himself to writing fiction. He had already been involved in translating the works of pre-revolutionary Russian modernists as a young man in Paris. After arriving in Russia, Serge was intimately linked with many writers and later participated in the brief post-revolutionary renaissance of Russian literature as a chronicler, translator, polemicist and critic. Moreover, as a literary theorist, he proposed an original solution to the debates about proletarian culture that were raging in the 20’s and 30’s.

Finally, as a practicing artist, he attempted to apply his theory and in so doing to break the mold of the traditional novel. His ambition was to open it up to both the material and the unconscious life of the masses in a period of revolution. The result was a synthesis enriched by influences as diverse as Freud and Firenzci, Joyce and Dos Passos, Gramsci and Lukacs, Pilniak and the Russian classics. For if Serge was a man with a message, he was a also writer of epiphanies and visions. As such, his work explodes the sterile and artificial myth of the antagonism between politics and art.

In any case, if Serge turned to a writing career merely as a substitute for a political one, he could not have picked a less opportune moment. In 1928 Soviet writers were being subjected to ever increasing bureaucratic harassment and censorship since the relatively free days of the NEP, and as a result the great period of literary experimentation which had followed the revolution was rapidly coming to an end. Royalties were astoundingly lucrative, but only for authors willing to conform. As Serge’s old friend Ilya Ionov, the director of the state publishing house explained to him when Victor’s first novel, already translated and set in type, was banned: “you can produce a masterpiece every year, but as long as you are not back in the line of Party, not a line of yours will see the light.” [Vous pouvez produire un chef-d’oeuvre par an, mais tant que vous ne serez pas rentré dans la ligne du parti, pas un ligne de vous ne verra le jour!] [7] Even the translations of Lenin’s Works, from which Victor derived some income, were censored, and his name was removed from the title-page.

Paradoxically, Serge had thus taken up serious writing at the very moment when the voices of the great Russian writers of the 1920’s were being silenced through censorship, suicide, and arrest. He was able to do this because, although intimately involved in Russian politics and culture, he wrote in French and was published in Paris (and Spain). Indeed, it was only because of his anomalous position as a Soviet citizen writing in the French language that any of his works appeared. Despite persecution, poverty and isolation, he succeeded in sending five manuscripts off to Paris between 1929 and 1932: his history of L’an I de la révolution russe (Editions du Travail, 1930; Maspéro 1971), his manifesto on Littérature et révolution (Librairie Valois 1932; Maspero 1976) and the three first novels of his witness-cycle: Les Hommes dans la prison, Naissance de notre force, and Ville conquise.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the writer who was able to produce so much dense work, in such a short time, and under such horrendous circumstances, was not an accidental novelist but a disciplined and dedicated artist. Moreover, Serge hardly abandoned militant activity when he turned to fiction. He not only wrote numerous political essays, but continued to function as a member of the Left Opposition and later the IVth International, the Spanish POUM, and the exile group, Socialismo y Libertad. Yet more and more he came to see his political involvement as a civic duty and the writing of fiction as his vocation, his pleasure, his reason for living. In 1936, upon completing Destin d’une révolution, his documented exposé of Stalinism based on fifteen years in Soviet Russia, Serge returned to fiction with evident relief, noting: “The militant’s job – reporting – is now completed. I’m going to attack something completely different.” [Désormais le militant a fait sa tache: rendre compte. Je vais m’attaquer à tout autre chose.] [8]

Once the journalist’s cliché Serge the “accidental novelist” (as if Conrad were less of an artist for having been a sea-captain!) is dismissed as a false problem, we face the real paradox of Serge’s place in literature. It well may be that Serge’s outstanding achievements as both a militant and an artist have tended to cancel each other out. Ironically, the notoriety of Serge the revolutionary has made it easy for reviewers and even more serious critics to overlook the originality of Serge the novelist [9], while the ideologues, beginning with Trotsky, have felt free to dismiss Serge’s penetrating analysis of the crisis of socialism as the jottings of a mere poet.

Moreover the sorry example of so-called Socialist Realism has combined with the traditional prejudices of “art for art’s sake” to reinforce a false dichotomy between art and politics, in which Left political literature is ipso facto dismissed as propaganda. However, Serge’s uniqueness and perhaps his greatness as a novelist was to have brought to bear his insider’s experience and consciousness as a Marxist militant on one of the central themes of modern literature: the revolutionary upheaval of society. His concept was not art as propaganda, but politics as vision.

Serge brought many unique qualities to his vocation. To begin with, he was an intellectual of universal scientific and literary culture. Entirely self-educated, he was thoroughly conversant with both French and Russian letters and he could recite effortlessly and endlessly from memory (a faculty that must have saved his sanity more than once in prison). In his poetry we find echoes of Baudelaire, Sully Prudhomme, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Péguy, Verhaeren, Jéhan Rictus, and a musicality evocative of Apollinaire and of Verlaine. Receptive to every mode of poetic invention, he was on intimate terms with the Surrealists Breton and Peret (with whom he shared his final exile), and Octavio Paz reports that Serge was the first to reveal the work of Henri Michaux and Valéry Larbaud, then unknown in Mexico.

However, the richness of Serge’s vision goes beyond the limits of French letters. It embraces a larger world of history, geography, and class struggle refracted through the specifically Russian literary tradition of spirituality, philosophical depth, and social consciousness. By his concept of the writer’s mission, he consiously placed himself “in the line of the Russian writers.” [dans la ligne des écrivains russes] [10] If Serge’s Russian soul expressed itself in the purest French, he was also able to view things Russian through Western eyes. Essentially a European, Serge depicts himself (in the poem “Frontier”) as a “torn man of Eurasia.” [un homme déchiré d’Eurasie] His writing embraced two cultures with a mastery comparable only to that of a Conrad or a Nabakov.

Serge’s association with the Russian literature of his time was intimate. As early as 1909, we find him eking out a precarious living in Paris translating Russian novels and the poetry of Artzybashev, Balmont and Merezhkovsky. In 1917, attempting to cross into Russia to join the revolutionaries, he struck up a friendship with Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilov, already a famous poet, who was on his way to join the Whites. In 1921 Serge was to struggle vainly trying to stop the Cheka from shooting this friend and adversary whose face and verses were to haunt him for years.

From the time of his arrival revolutionary Russia during the terrible winter of 1918-1919, Serge was in contact with poets and writers, beginning with Blok and Gorky, who from his youth had been close to Serge’s maternal family. He was the first to reveal Biely’s Christ est ressucité to French readers [11] and perhaps the only Communist to participate in his Free Philosophy Society (Volfila). Serge’s letters, diaries, and Memoirs, along with the articles on Soviet cultural life he penned for the French magazine Clarté, provide fascinating discussions of poets like Alexander Blok, Andrei Biely, Sergei Yesenin, Ossip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and novelists like Alexis Tolstoy, Babel, Zamiatine, Lebidinsky, Gladkov, Ivanov, Fedin, and his close friend, Boris Pilniak.

Through Serge’s writings, we can follow the evolution of Soviet literature from the early revolutionary enthusiasms of some of the established poets, to the multi-faceted literary renaissance provoked by the NEP at the end of the Civil War, through the era of suicide and despair in the mid-20’s, to the imposition of totalitarian conformity through censorship and physical suppression in the 30’s.

According to Serge, the attitude of many of the outstanding poets of the pre-war generation toward the revolution was positive (unlike Gumilov, who had openly conspired against the regime). The epic spirit of the revolution, he wrote in 1922 [12], had sparked new creative impulses among the poets, whether of Christian, symbolist, or futurist inspiration. Citing Biely’s Christ is Reborn, Blok’s mythic vision of a “Christ crowned with roses” who, “invisible and silent, walks in the snow storm before The Twelve Red Guards with their pointed caps and rifles, and Mayakovsky’s grandiose 150,000,000, he concluded, paraphrasing Biely: “To understand these times, hearts and minds must rise to the level of epic. The fact is that there is a profound lyricism in the revolution, that it is a new faith, that it at every moment teaches the sacrifice of old, diminished, worn-out, obsolete values for new values times exalting the individual to an irresistible feeling of greatness ...” [Il faut pour comprndre ces temps, que les coeurs et les esprits se hauseent jusqu’à l’épopée ... – Le fait est qu’il y a un profond lyrisme de la révolution, qu’elle est une foi nouvelle, qu’elle enseigne à tout heure le sacrifice des anciennes valeurs amoindries, usées, primée à des valeurs nouvelles, – le fait est qu’à force de ne pous compter qu’avec les masses elle exalte parfois chez l’individu un irrésistible sentiment de grandeur ...] [13]

Serge’s own poetry published in this period (Ville, 1920 and Max, 1921) and his 1931 retrospective novel, Ville conquise, reflect this mood.

Unlike the poets, many of the older novelists had disappointed Serge by remaining aloof or hostile to the revolution or joining the emigration. However, at end of the Civil War Serge saw the free market of the NEP ushering in a new era of diversity and creativity in which fiction flourished.

“A new literature was bursting out in the ‘Serapion Brothers’ circle and among the writers, yesterday unknown, who overnight were now counted among the great: Boris Pilniak, Vsvolod Ivanov, Konstantin Fedin. Their works were intense and impetuous, saturated with virile humanism and a critical spirit. They were rebuked because they were not at all Communistic, indeed very far from being so; but they were published, they were loved. The great tradition of Russian literature, interrupted during the stormy years, was being born again in the second year of peace! It was miraculous.”

[Une littérature nouvelle explosait avec le cénacle des “Frères de Sérapion” et des inconnus de la veille qui, d’un seul coup, se classaient grands écrivains: Boris Pilniak, Vsevold Ivanov, Constantin Fédine. Leurs oeuvres étaient denses et rudes, chargées d’un humanisme viril et d’esprit critique. On leur reporchait de n’être ppoint communistes, loin de là, mais on les publiait, on les aimait. La grande tradition de la littérature russe,interrompue par les années d’ouragan, renaissait dans la deuxième année de la pacification! C’était merveille.] [14]

On the one hand Serge praised the “dynamism” of these new prose-writers who “Owe everything to the revolution and are aware of it. [Ils doivent tout à la révolution et ils le sentent.] [15] On the other, following Trotsky, he was critical of their lack of inner understanding of the historical meaning of the revolution. With increasing anguish however, Serge witnessed the gradual extinction of the creative outpouring of this heroic period under the pressures of conformity, falseness and corruption. “What can I do now in this life?” Biely asked him despondently one evening. “I cannot live outside this Russia of ours and I cannot breathe within it.” While Serge had viewed the Red Terror during the Civil War as an unavoidable necessity (all the while protesting against its excesses, as we have seen in the case of Gumilov), he considered its perpetuation into the succeeding period of relative calm to be “an immense and demoralizing blunder.”


By the mid-twenties, Serge found himself surrounded by suicides: first the Communist militants protesting the stifling of inner-Party debate and driven to despair by pervasive bureaucratization and corruption, then the poets: “The telephone rings: ‘Come quickly, Yesenin has killed himself.’ I run out in the snow. I enter his room in the Hotel International, and I can hardly recognize him; he no longer looks himself ...”

Mayakovsky, who was soon to put a bullet through his own heart, had addressed a reproachful farewell to Yesenin. Serge recalled Mayakovsky’s “athletic body straining with a sort of jeering violence, hammering out his farewell before audiences for whom [Yesenin’s] death was turning into a symbol:

This planet’s not well equipped for joy,
Joy must be wrenched from future times!

[Maiakovsky, athlétique, dressé tout entier par une sorte de violence railleuse, martela son adieu devant des auditoires pour lesquels cette mort devenait symbolique:

Cette planète n’est guère outillée pour la joie,
La joie, il faut l’arracher aux temps futurs!

Serge saw “the gigantic scale of certain royalties” [l’énormité de certains droits d’auteur] during the NEP as a corrupting influence encouraging the worst kind of official literary conformity, which many writers, to their credit, did their best to resist. By the early 30’s the advent of the Stalinist Terror spelled the doom of any real originality or independence. He watched appalled as his friend Boris Pilniak rewrote whole sections of his work under the direct supervision of the infamous Yezhov (future head of the GPU), and listened to Ossip Mandelstam read aloud from poetry he didn’t dare publish. [17] Serge worked under similar surveillance translating Lenin’s Works. Among the Soviet novels Serge translated into French at this time were Gladkov’s Le Ciment [18], Henriette Chaguinian’s Hydrocentrale [19], and Sholokhov’s Terres défrichées. [20] (His name was later removed from the title pages.)

In his Literature and Revolution, published in 1932, Serge attempted to defend the values of spontaneity, sincerity, experimentation, artistic quality and the writer’s independence from dogma precisely in the name of socialism and the needs of the masses in a period of transition. Standing squarely in the Marxist tradition, Serge’s analyzed traditional class culture and called for a “proletarian humanism” while denouncing the danger of the dogmatic party stranglehold that would soon stifle both truth and creativity.

Within a few months, Serge’s fears were realized with the advent of Socialist Realism. Victor was arrested and deported, shortly to be followed by many other writers, most of whom disappeared or died in the camps. It was Serge’s reputation as a French writer, exploited by loyal friends in Paris at a moment when Stalin was actively courting French public opinion, that saved him from the fate of his colleagues. Shortly before his death, in an essay about the tragedy of the Soviet writers, Serge pointed to the problem posed by the “universal cowardice” [l’universelle lacheté] of the Western writers and intellectuals who remained silent throughout an entire decade during which their Russian colleagues, writers like Mandelstam, Pilniak, and Babel, personally known to them and translated into every language, were massacred. “No Pen-club, even those that held banquets for them, asked the least question about their cases. No literary review, to my knowledge, commented on their mysterious end.” [Aucun Pen-club, même de ceux qui leur avaient offert des dîners, n’a posé la moindre question à leur sujet. Aucune revue littéraire n’a commenté, que je sache, leur fin mystérieuse.] While acknowledging the importance of the poets of the anti-Nazi Resistance (Aragon and Elouard) and the Sartrian concept of “committed” literature, Serge (who chose the title “Resistance” for his own poems written in deportation) wonders at the meaning of their one-sidedness:

“The fact that this poetry is signed by poets who, in other circumstances, sang the praises of the executioners and the torturers, insulted the victims, spread lies on the graves of another Resistance motivated by the same goals – the defense of man against tyranny – leads us, by a terrible alchemy, to the negation of all the values they affirm.” [Mais que cette poésie soitsouvent signée de poètes qui, par ailleurs louent le bourreau, loue le tortionnaire, insultent les fusillés, mentent sur les tombes d’une autre Résistance “mue” par les mêmes mobiles – la défense de l’homme contre la tyrannie – cela nous amène, par une effrayante alchimie, à la négation de toutes les valeurs affirmées.] [21]

The striking fact that emerges from this rapid survey of Serge’s participation in the bright beginning, gradual corruption, and ultimate tragic massacre of the Soviet literary movement is that Serge alone, by dint of his unbending opposition and his special status as a French-language writer, was able both to continue writing and to write freely. He spoke the truth aloud and perpetuated the spiritual traditions of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia at the very moment when the voices of his Russian colleagues were forced into silence. As one Slavonic scholar recently put it: “Although written in French, Serge’s novels are perhaps the nearest we have to what Soviet literature of the 30s might have been ...” [22]

Thus his writings represent a unique strand of continuity between a lost generation and what one hopes will be a new beginning in Soviet literary and intellectual life. Already, with the 1989 publication in the Soviet Union of many suppressed works, including Serge’s great novel of Russia during the Purges, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, the “blank pages” are being filled in. [22-A]

Serge also occupies a unique place among Western writers. With rare exceptions (John Reed, Barbusse), they had remained indifferent or hostile to the Soviet Revolution during its heroic phase under Lenin and Trotsky. The great heyday of “revolutionary” writers in the West was during the 30’s when Stalin was already quenching the fires of revolution in Russia under a blanket of repressive bureaucracy while relegating the workers’ movements in Europe and America to support of the capitalist democracies with which he had allied his regime. As distinct from the Red Decade (during which Serge served in the Russian Civil War and then worked as a Comintern agent in Germany, Austria and the Balkans), the ‘Pink Decade’ was a time of revolutionary writers conferences, literary pilgrimages to the ‘Socialist Fatherland,’ and access to a mass public and lucrative royalties. “The revolution,” in the immortal words of Clara Malraux, “means going out a lot and having many visitors” [La révolution, c’est se voir beaucoup].

Not surprisingly, the values reflected in the works of these Pop Front committed writers derived more from individual heroism, sentimental democratic populism and the cult of efficiency than from the impulses of mass revolutionary activity that animated Serge’s writings. Moreover, while Serge continued to elaborate his revolutionary novel cycle as a committed writer throughout the 30’s and 40’s, one remarks that a number of the best-known fellow-travelling French language novelists, for example Malraux and Gide, put aside fiction or wrote only mediocre works after they embraced Communism.

Moreover, during the 40’s, most of the writers with whom Serge is most frequently grouped – Arthur Koestler, Franz Borkenau, Manès Sperber, and André Malraux – had become disillusioned ex-revolutionaries to be enlisted under the glorious banner of the anti-Communist crusade. However, as Peter Sedgwick pointed out nearly thirty years ago,

Having started earlier, Serge also lasted longer as a committed revolutionary writer. By the date of the last Moscow Trials and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the ex-Stalinist literati had said goodbye to the revolution which they had only embraced in its most raddled flesh; Serge, who never had any illusions about Stalin and precious few about the totalitarian features of Lenin’s day, was writing for socialism until he died in late 1947 ... He never repudiated Bolshevism as a historical imperative in Russian circumstances, and refused to join the chorus of unreason that linked the worst barbarities of Stalinism with the idea of revolution itself. [23]

Serge’s place in world literature is thus doubly unique. “I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be very usefully compared,” writes the British critic and novelist, John Berger. As a Russian writer of the great post-revolutionary generation, he alone both survived and continued to write freely, preserved its values and was able to give a truthful picture of the Stalin era as it was lived. As a European, he was among the very few writers who wrote from within the revolutionary movement, who embraced it when it was less than fashionable to do so, stuck with it to the end, and was unafraid to depict both its triumphs and its defeats, its grandeurs and it ultimate tragedy, with both historical exactitude and human understanding.



3. Serge’s Aesthetic

Although Victor wrote on artistic questions during his anarchist youth, his aesthetic as a novelist was forged in contact with the Russian literary movement. Between July 1922 and July 1926 Serge produced a regular Chronicle of Intellectual Life in Soviet Russia [Chronique de la vie intellectuel en Russia des Soviets] for the readers of Clarté, recently founded by Henri Barbusse. His articles include studies of individual authors, translations, and a running commentary on political and economic situation in which experiments and controversies were taking place in Soviet Cultural life. Jean-Pierre Morel, in his monumental study, presents Serge as the main source of information in France about Soviet literary life in this period and largely credits Serge with revealing the literary renaissance of the early 1920’s to the French public. [24]

Serge also contributed directly to the at times acerbic debates over the definition, necessity and possibility of a “proletarian” or “revolutionary” literature, a contribution which Morel has summarized with considerable subtlety and detail. It is not our purpose here to analyze Serge’s somewhat ambivalent positions in these fascinating debates for their own sake, but only to the extent that they reveal his own enthusiasms, aesthetic, and programmatic choices. For Serge’s criticisms of the style, ambitions and theories of his Russian contemporaries in the 20’s are the clearest indications of his own aesthetic and political goals in elaborating his witness-cycle during the 30’s and 40’s.

The key theoretical text is his March 1925 article, Is a Proletarian Literature Possible? [Une littérature proletarianne est-elle possible?] [25] In it, Serge attempts a rapid and somewhat conciliatory summary of the various contending works, schools, and theories produced since the Revolution. Although constrained by his official status as a representative of the Comintern, he manages to put forward his original viewpoint by balancing one faction or viewpoint off against another.

Thus, while praising the rigid “Bolshevizers” of the Na Postu group for their sharp Communist criticisms of the equivocal position of Boris Pilniak and the other fellow-traveling writers of the NEP, Serge pointedly quotes Bukharin to the effect that replacing free competition with Party control would be the quickest way to kill this young proletarian literature. Moreover, in Serge’s view the criticisms of the “Bolshevizers” were as often exaggerated and dogmatic as they were useful, while the works produced under their influence were spoiled by bureaucratic clichés, official optimism, and Holy imagery. “It’s not good proletarian literature,” he concluded, “because it’s not good literature at all.” [Ce n’est pas de la bonne littérature prolétarienn parce que ce n’est pas de la bonne littérature du tout.]

Turning next to Trotsky, whose ideas on Literature and Revolution Serge had mentioned in Clarté as early as 1922, Serge gives verbal assent (“We certainly agree”/”C’est bien notre avis.”) to Trotsky’s rejection of the very idea of a proletarian culture, but “with one reservation” [à une réserve près]. Trotsky takes the long Marxist view that while the bourgeoisie took a whole epoch to develop its class culture first under the old regime and then in power, the oppressed proletariat had no chance to develop a culture of its own. Moreover the proletariat is destined, once in power, to abolish class society (and hence class culture) in order to develop a new classless human culture. During this transitional period (which Trotsky assumes will be brief!), the very term “proletarian literature” should be considered dangerous in that it “fictitiously anticipates, in the narrow confines of the present, on a future culture.” [anticipe fictivement, dans les cadres étroits du présent, sur la culture future.]

Without openly criticizing Trotsky’s somewhat scholastic abstractions, Serge, as a practical-minded militant and potential revolutionary novelist, pointed out that in human terms this “transition period” might be somewhat longer than Trotsky was willing to admit and would have its own cultural needs:

Several generations of workers will in all likelihood know no other times. More than anything, they will struggle. They will have to suffer much and destroy much; there is a world to transform. But, like the armies of antiquity, they will have their bards, their story-tellers, the musicians, their philosophers ... The proletariat needs its great intellectuals. It also needs lesser ones, for lesser, yet vital tasks ... The revolutionary work it is accomplishing has an intrinsic cultural value. In this restricted historical sense, there will be, there already is, a culture of the militant proletariat.

Plusieurs générations de travailleurs ne connaîtront vraisemnblablement pas d’autres temps. Elles se battront surtout. Elles auront énormément à détruire et à souffrir: le monde est à refaire. Mais, comme les armées antiques, elles auront leurs bardes, leur conteurs, leurs musiciens, leurs philosophes ... Il lui faut [au prolétariat] ses grands intellectuels. Il lui en faut aussi de moindres, pour de moindres taches, mais vitales ... L’oeuvre révolutionnaire qu’il accomplit a ainsi une valeur culturelle intrinsèque. En ce sens historiquement restreint, il y aura, il y a déjà, une culture du prolétariat militant.

It was precisely into this role of militant “bard,” “story-teller” and “singer” that Serge was to cast himself in 1928 when he was reborn as writer. He had no pretension to be a leader, a “great intellectual” like Marx or Lenin, but he was firmly convinced of the value of the “lesser task” of revolutionary artist. For although he appreciated the efforts of the circles of worker-writers in Russia and in France, he understood that only a professional writer, who had undergone a long apprenticeship and “assimilated the essential of modern culture,” could produce any lasting work, could play Homer or Sophocles to the armies of the militant proletariat.

But what form, what style, what aesthetic would Serge adopt to fulfill this classic role? As opposed to Trotsky, who had expressed his disdain for modernism and his preference for traditional forms, Serge knew he would have to break the mold of the classical novel in order to render the discontinuities of the revolution and the modern world and to incorporate the life, not only of individuals, but of vast collectivities. “I don’t think the Russian revolution can be depicted with the style and pace of a Balzac describing the sordid monotonous life of Old Grandet ...” he observed in 1923. [Il ne me semble pas qu’on puisse dépeindre la révolution russe avec le style et l’allure d’un Balzac décrivant la vie sordide et monotone du père Grandet ...] [26]

Although Serge wrote in his Memoirs that if “anyone influenced me, it was John Dos Passos” [si quelqu’un m’influença, c’était John Dos Passos] [27], it is obvious that the most powerful influence was Boris Pilniak, whose work Serge admired from the start and with whom he lived on intimate terms after 1928 when he was elaborating his own fiction. Influences aside, one can get the clearest picture of what Serge attempted in his own novels by reading what he thought he saw in Pilniak’s Naked Year back in 1923:

Pilniak’s way of writing seems bizarre at first. But in the last analysis, it is rigorously adequate to is period ( ...) The revolution which has broken all the old social disciplines has also broken the all-too-conventional ones of literature. No linear story-line in this Russian writer. No “plot” (what a poor thing, what a poor word!) No unique central characters. Crowds in motion – in which each individual is a world, and end in himself – events crowding, intertwining, colliding, overriding each other, multiple lives which appear and disappear, all of them rare, unique, central, because human, all insignificant in “Russia, the Blizzard, the Revolution,” for only what remains counts and that is the country, the masses, the hurricane ( ...) To sum up: dynamism, simultaneousness, realism – direct, absolute – rhythmic structure of details and the whole: these seem to us to be the dominant characteristics of his literary form. Let us also note the love of exact documents, of authentic social observation, of the phrase or refrain snatched on the street and reproduced without comment in the manner of a historian’s notebook.

La manière d’écrire de Pilniak paraît au premier abord singulière. Au fond, elle est rigoureusement adéquate à son époque ( ...) La révolution qui a brisé toutes les anciennes disciplines sociales a aussi brisé celles si conventionelles de la littérature. Pas de récit suivi chez cet écrivain russe. Aucune “intrigue” (la pauvre chose, le pauvre mot!) Pas de personnages uniques, centraux. Des foules en mouvement – dans lesquelles chacun est un monde, une fin en soi – des événements qui se bousculent, se traversent, s’emmèlent, se chevauchent les un les autres, des vies multiples qui apparaissent et disparaissent, toutes rares, uniques, centrales, puisque humaines, toutes insignifiantes dans “la Russie, la Tourment de neige, La Révolution,” car il n’y a que ce qui dure qui compte et c’est le pays, les masses, l’ouragan ( ...) Résumons: dynamisme, simultanéisme, réalisme – absolu, direct – rhythmique des détails et de l’ensemble, telles nous paraissent être les caractéristiques dominates de sa forme littéraire. Remarquons encore l’amour du document précis, du trait de moeurs authentique, de la phrase ou du refrain noté dans la rue et reproduit sans commentaire, comme le ferait un historiographe dans son carnet de notes. [28]

If a single paragraph could sum up the general aspects of Victor Serge’s form and style in general, and particularly in Conquered City [Ville conquise] – his own novel about the revolution’s naked Year, 1919 and without doubt his densest, most complex, and artistically developed work – it would be the above. Equally striking is the fact that the title Serge give the next book in his cycle, – the lost novel which dealt with the year Serge considered the apogee of the revolution, 1920 – comes straight from a story Pilniak: The Blizzard [La Tourmente]. For Serge, it was the image of the Revolution itself.

This is not simply a question of influence. For if Serge expressed deep reservations about Pilniak’s fundamental political ambivalance [constante équivoque intérieure] [29] and pointed to the lack of historical consciousness and to the unconscious non-revolutionary elements in his work, it was not just to echo Trotsky, who had formulated the same criticisms. It is precisely the “central axis,” the “historical meaning of the revolution” which Trotsky found missing in Pilniak’s novels that will inform Serge’s similarly innovative work with an underlying socialist vision. One also notes that, minus the clichés, Serge also endorsed the “epic literature” of more orthodox proletarian novelists like Lebidinisky and Serafimovitch, a movement born in Russia and “impossible anywhere else.”

Jean-Pierre Morel is not too far from the mark when he suggests that Serge, in his study of Pilniak, attempted to derive a “magic formula” for “revolutionary literature,” to wit: “Revolutionary inspiration plus innovative form,” but perhaps overly sever when he adds “both devoid of any ambiguity.” [L’inspiration révolutionnaire plus la forme novatrice, l’une et l’autre dépourvues d’ambiguité] F.N. Morel, op. cit., p.37. In any case, what interests us is not what Serge may have written as a critic, but his practice as a novelist. Here, far from banishing ambiguity, Serge presents the central theme of his novel cycle – revolution, socialism – as essentially problematical, fraught with contradiction, open-ended.

One then recalls that Serge was living in Vienna, studying Marx, Freud, Adler, and Firenzci, and working on intimate terms with the two greatest Marxist cultural critics of the era, Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, during much of the time he was writing about the problem of revolution and literature. If one adds to this Serge’s deep appreciation of James Joyce [30] and even of Proust, one is forced to conclude that both on the question of revolution and on that of innovation and modernity, Serge was hardly averse to the kind of ambiguity that one looks for in a genuine work of art.

That Serge’s idea of literature has nothing to do with propaganda is evident in a striking passage in the Memoirs, where he explores the autonomy of the subconscious in the creative process.

Poets and novelists are not political beings because they are not essentially rational. Political intelligence, based though it is in the revolutionary’s case upon a deep idealism, demands a scientific and pragmatic armour, and subordinates itself to the pursuit of strictly defined social ends. The artist, on the contrary, is always delving for his material in the subconscious, in the pre-conscious, in intuition, in a lyrical inner life which is rather hard to define; he does not know with any certainty either where he is going or what he is creating. If the novelist’s characters are truly alive, they function by themselves, to a point at which they eventually take their author by surprise; and sometimes he is quite perplexed if he is called upon to classify them in terms of morality or social utility. Doestoevsky, Gorky, and Balzac brought to life, all lovingly, criminals whom the Political Man would shoot most unlovingly.

Poètes et romanciers ne sont pas des esprits politiques parce qu’ils ne sont pas essentiellement rationnels. L’intelligence politique, bien que fondée dans le cas du révolutionnaire sur un profond idealisme, exige un armement scientifique et pragmatique, et se subordonne à la poursuite de fins sociales définies. L’artiste, par contre, puise sans cesse ses matériaux dans le subconscient, dans le préconscient, dans l’intuition, dans une vie intérieure lyrique assez difficile à definir; il ne sait pas avec certitude oú il va, ce qu’il crée. Si les personnages du romancier sont réellement vivants, ils agissent eux-memes au point qu’il leur arrive de surprendre l’écrivain, et celui-ce serait parfois bien embarrassé d’avoir à les classer selon la moralité ou l’utilité sociale. Dostoievsky, Gorki, Balzac font vivre avec amour des criminels que le politique fusillerait sans amour ... [31]

Serge’s socialist politics come through in his fiction not because he writes anything remotely resembling the roman à thèse but because they are deeply ingrained in his experience and vision of human beings and the world. There is no conflict of art and politics here, but rather the artistic expression of a mind enriched by a world-view. One could no more imagine a Serge without Marxism than a Dante without Christianity.



4. Serge’s Cycle of Witness-Novels

As we have seen, from the beginning Serge imagined his fictional project as an ensemble, and there are even characters who reappear in three or four novels. However, having rejected the bourgeois novel with its central hero, Serge developed as his subjects not isolated individual destinies but collective experiences. In 1931 he explained to his friend and editor, the poet Marcel Martinet: “to sum up, in writing Men [in Prison] I attempted to create the novel of the [prison]-Mill, in Birth [of our Power] the novel of proletarian power revealed to itself for the first time. In Conquest [Conquered City], I would like to dramatize the conflict of that power grappling with history and itself – and victorious.” [En somme, j’eusse souhaité réaliser en Les Hommes le roman de la Meule, en Naissance, celui de la force prolétarianne pour la première fois révélée à elle-même. Dans Conquête [Ville conquise], je voudrais exprimer le drame de cette force aux prises avec l’histoire et elle-même, – et victorieuse.] [32] Referring to his vision of a witness-cycle, he adds that his books “are closely linked by their whole substance and in my mind; and the ones that will follow, if I am able to work, will form a single block with them. Each book will be but a stone in a whole.” [se tiennent de très près par toute la substance et dans mon esprit; et ceux qui suivront si je peux travailler ne feront avec eux qu’un bloc. Chaque livre ne fera qu’une pierre dans un ensemble.] [33]

Living in constant fear of arrest, he composed his books “in detached fragments which could each be separately complete and sent abroad post-haste” [par fragments détachés susceptibles d’être achevés séparément et aussitôt envoyés à l’étranger.] [34] As he told Martinet, “I am working in such solitude that I couldn’t express it to you and you couldn’t conceive it ... It is my old prison habits that allow me to work this way.” [Je travaille ... dans une solitude que je ne saurais dire et que vous ne sauriez concevoir ... Ce sont mes anciennes habitudes d’encellulé qui me permettent de travailler ainsi.] [35] This precarious situation could not last.

The next novels in the cycle, were in fact written in captivity, for by 1933 Serge had been arrested and deported to Orenbourg on the Ural. These were entitled Les Hommes perdus, (about pre-WWI French anarchism), and La Tourmente (in which Victor attempted to capture the grandeur of the revolutionary year 1920). Paradoxically, they were the only works he ever had time to polish. Alas, although Victor painstakingly typed multiple copies and obtained permission to send them abroad, they were all “lost” (that is to say confiscated): some by the Soviet Postal Service, some by the Censor, the last by the GPU on the Polish border when Victor and his family were expelled from the Soviet Union in April 1936. (With glaznost, a search to recover them has begun in the Soviet Union.) [36]

The remaining novels of the cycle were written on the roads of exile under conditions hardly more favorable. Midnight in the Century [S’il est minuit dans le siècle] [37], Serge’s tribute to the persecuted Russian Oppositionists, appeared just before Serge was forced to flee Paris under the Nazi onslaught. He managed to keep working on his great novel of the Purges, The Case of Comrade Tulayev [L’Affaire Toulaév], as he escaped across France to Marseilles with no money, no papers, no nationality, and the GPU and the Vichy police at his heels. After months of maddening visa problems, Victor and his manuscripts left Marseilles on the last refugee ship to Martinique (where he wrote in prison), thence to Santo Domingo, Cuba (jailed again) and eventually to legal exile in Mexico.

In Mexico, Victor was slandered, boycotted and physically attacked by the same Stalinist agents who had engineered the murder of his friend, Trotsky, a year before Serge’s arrival. Moreover both Toulaév [38] and Serge’s extraordinary Memoirs of a Revolutionary [39](begun in France, continued on the road, and completed in Mexico) were deemed too controversial for publication during their author’s lifetime, despite the efforts of George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald. However, the next novel in the series, The Long Dusk [Les Derniers temps] [40], in which Serge depicted fate of revolutionary exiles during the Fall of France and the beginnings of the Resistance, enjoyed a modest success in Canada and in France at the end of the War. In the final novel of the cycle, the posthumous Les Années sans pardon. [41] Serge grapples with the themes of planetary destruction, the eclipse of revolutionary consciousness, death, art, and nature against the background of the siege of Leningrad, the bombardment of Berlin, and the jungles of Mexico.

Serge’s series of witness-novels may be usefully divided into two sub-cycles: the cycle of revolution and the cycle of resistance. The first comprises the novels written in Russia under conditions of semi-captivity which deal with the coming to power of the revolutionaries. Here one senses an effort to distill the meaning of a revolutionary experience that was being falsified before Serge’s eyes. There is also implicit, in Serge’s retrospective vision of the revolution’s heroic ascension, of its present corruption under Stalin. The cycle of revolution would include Les Hommes perdus (confiscated), Les Hommes dans la prison, Naissance de notre force, Ville conquise, and La Tourmente (confiscated).

The second group, or cycle of resistance, comprises the novels written in exile after 1936: S’il est minuit dans le siècle, L’Affaire Toulaév, Les Derniers temps, and the posthumous Les Années sans pardon. Here Serge was free to deal with contemporary issues: the resistance and suffering of the Russian people, both Old Bolsheviks and ordinary folk, under Stalin’s insane tyranny; the revolution in Spain, the Fall of France, the Resistance; the near-extermination of the independent revolutionary movement.

The first cycle is about victory, the second about defeat. But the same vision, at once optimistic and tragic pervades both cycles. With Serge you go from the prisons of the old regime, through the revolution, and the back into the new prisons of a Stalin or a Hitler. Along the way the best, the most sincere of your comrades are destroyed. And yet the effect of this journey from prison to prison is not one of despair. Underlying it all there is a permanent and collective protagonist of conscious revolutionaries, what Serge once called “the invisible international” or more commonly “the comrades.” This entity tends to merge with a large collective, the masses – workers, poor farmers, student youth, beggars, bandits, and madmen – who are ever present in Serge’s novels.

Reading the cycles as a whole, one senses that the individual may be obliterated, the living consciousness of the movement may even suffer eclipse. But ideas persist, like “funeral masks” buried under lava, [42] and the masses go on, in victory or in defeat, ensuring that no defeat will be permanent. It is this underlying unity, the permanence of Serge’s collective tragic hero, that enabled him to write novels that are tragic without being pessimistic. And because human history is seen as part of natural history, it is also the spring from which Serge’s lyricism and his sense of cosmic irony flow. In terms of the two cycles, it is expressed in the ironic themes of “victory-in-defeat” and “defeat-in-victory.”



5. Conclusion

Although Serge began writing with the modest ambition of “providing some useful testimony” about his time [donner sur ce temps des témoignages utiles], he also intended to leave behind works that would last. [43] The scope of Serge’s series of witness-novels grew to embrace a full epoch of historical struggle from the pre-revolutionary movement, through the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and NEP to the Stalinist counter-revolution, the rise of fascism and the extermination of a Serge’s unique revolutionary generation. Serge was certainly both the witness and the “bard” of this now-ancient army, and his art survives, with its missing texts known only by title or theme, like the epic or tragic cycles of the poets of antiquity.

Serge conceived of literature as “a means of expressing for people what most of them experience without the means to express, as a means of communion, as a testimony to the vast flow of life through us, whose essential aspects we must try to fix for the benefit of those who will come after us.” [un moyen d’exprimer pour les hommes ce que la plupart vivent sans savoir l’exprimer, comme un moyen de communion, comme un témoignange sur la vaste vie qui fuit à travers nous et dont nous devons tenter de fixer les aspects essentiels pour ceux qui viendront après nous.] [44] His novels thus communicate to us, from generation to generation, a sense of lived experience, of what things were really like, of a truth more historical and human than any history.

They also, in a real and concrete way, bring back to life the vision and the mission of his doomed generation of revolutionary thinkers and fighters and implant them in new generations. I know this has been the case for me (over a period of thirty years) and for a remarkable number of Serge’s readers who have communicated their feelings to me. For who reading these words cannot recall the experience of reading a novel, in youth or as an adult, that has altered our sense of ourselves and the world in a permanent and significant manner? Serge was aware of this power of art. In 1930, when the question of direct revolutionary activity versus writing was still an issue for him, he explained to Martinet:

It seems to me that [writing] can have not-at-all negligible value at the time we are living through, that is during our period of tragic passivity and crisis. I feel more and more that everything must be started up again from the bottom up, thus, from a certain viewpoint, by the formation of characters. And in this respect, a few sincere and truthful books can be extremely useful.

Il me semble d’ailleurs qu’il [l’écrit] peut avoir une valeur révolutionnaire nullement négligeable à l’époque oú nous sommes, c’est à dire dans notre période d’accalmie tragique et de crise. Je pense de plus en plus que tout est à recommencer par la base, donc, sous un certain angle, par la formation des caractères. Et à cet gard, quelques livres sincères et véridiques peuvent servir. [45]

“Our period of tragic passivity and crisis” of wars, massacres, and counter-revolutions has continued (along with admirable upsurges of popular energy and political courage) during the half-century since Serge’s death and one senses that the future of humanity, indeed of the planet, is now at issue. Clearly, art alone cannot bring solutions, but it can, as Serge stated, form characters. A conscious revolutionary movement is still to be rebuilt. Serge’s works, and with them the ethos and ideas they represent, somehow survive as a vital link with our past. As late 1939 Serge is using the optimistic image of “Seeds beneath the snow.” By 1947, in Les Années sans pardon, he is writing about “funeral masks preserved in the earth” yet adds, there are so many that “nothing is yet lost.” [... rien n’est encore perdu]




1. Mém., p.273.

2. Ibid.

3. Serge, Carnets, p.115. 30 août 1944.

4. Préface à l’Affaire Toulaév, unpublished MS, thanks to Jean Rière.

5. Emmanuel Mounier, S’il est minuit dans le siècle, Esprit, février 1940.

6. Victor Serge ou la Tragédie des révolutionnaires, Etudes, Tome 265, avril-mai-juin 1930.

7. Mém., p.276.

8. Serge to Marcel Martinet, Dec. 25, 1936, B.N. Paris. Reprinted in a flawed and incomplete anthology of the Serge-Trotsky correspondence edited by Michel Dreyfus: Victor Serge et Léon Trotsky, La Lutte contre le stalinisme, Paris, Maspero, 1977, p.155.

9. The most egregious example of this is Neil Acherson’s “review” of Men in Prison in the prestigious New York Review of Books for Aug. 13, 1970 which, while commenting with snide erudition on Serge’s political career, fails to inform the reader in any manner that the book of Serge under discussion is a work of fiction!

10. Mém., p.274.

11. Clarté, No.27 (Nlle série), 20 décembre 1922.

12. Serge, Les Ecrivains russes et la revolution,” Clarté, 15 July, 1922, pp.387-390.

13. Serge, loc.cit.

14. Mém., p.175; Eng., p.165.

15. Serge, Chronique de la vie intellectuelle en Russie des Soviets: Blancs et Rouges, Clarté No.28, 1er janv. 1923, p.93.

16. Mém., p.208.

17. Serge, La Tragédie des Ecrivains soviétiques, Paris, Les Egaux, supplément à Masses, Janv. 1947, no.6; in English as The Writer’s Conscience in Marxists on Literature: an Anthology, David Craig, Editor, Penguin 1975.

18. Paris, Editions sociales internationales, 1928.

19. Paris, Editions sociales internationales, 1933.

20. Paris, Editions sociales internationales, 1933.

21. Serge, La Tragédie des Ecrivains soviétiques, pp.9-l0.

22. Neil Cornwell, Irish Slavonik Studies 4, 1983.

22-A. By a fitting irony which Serge, whose motto was “nothing is ever lost,” would certainly have savored, the first Soviet publication of the Russian translation of Tulayev appeared in a magazine named for his place of deportation: URAL. (Vol. 1989, Jan.-Mar.).

23. Peter Sedgwick, Victor Serge and Socialism, International Socialism No.14, Autumn 1963, p.18.

24. Cf. Jean-Pierre Morel, Le Roman insupportable: L’Internationale littéraire et la France 1920-1932, Paris, NRF, 1985, pp.31ff.

25. Clarté, no.72, 1er mars 1925; reprinted as appendix in Serge, Littérature et révolution, Paris, Maspero, 1976. pp.97ff.

26. Serge Boris Pilniak, Clarté, No.36, 20 mai 1923, p.72.

27. Mém., p.275.

28. Serge Boris Pilniak, Clarté, No.36, 20 mai 1923.

29. Clarté, 1er déc. 1924.

30. Cf. Victor Serge to Emmanuel Mounier, 14 janvier 1941, in Bulletin des Amis d’E. Mounier No.39, Avril 1972, p.9.

31. Mémoires, p.257.

32. VS to MM Feb. 20, 1931.

33. VS to MM, Leningrad, April 19, 1931. BN Paris.

34. Mém., p.275.

35. VS to MM 14 aout 1930, BN Paris.

36. Cf. Murry Armstrong, The Searchers: Literary Detectives on the Trail, Weekend Guardian, London, Sept. 22-23, 1990.

37. Grasset 1939 and 1971.

38. Paris, Seuil, 1948.

39. Paris, Seuil, 1951.

40. Montréal, Ed. de l’Arbre,1946; Paris, Grasset, 1951.

41. Paris, Maspero, 1971 and 1979.

42. A central image in Les Années sans pardon. See p.305.

43. Mém., p.274.

44. Ibid.

45. Victor Serge to Marcel Martinet, 17 Sept., 1930.


Last updated on 6.6.2002