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Book review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge

I loved this book. Victor Serge was an important player in the Russian Revolution, with experience too in revolutionary uprisings in France and Spain. There were other such people, but what makes Serge special are two things — his vivid prose style, and his unflagging determination to stand up for the idealists of the early days, frequently in danger of being shot as class enemies as the revolutionary skies darkened.

I’ve rarely liked over much the Marxists I’ve met in real life. For one thing, they’ve seemed intolerant of dissenting voices and locked in their own concepts, “late capitalism” and so on, often against all the evidence. But I’m sure I’d have liked Serge very much — I certainly enjoyed Memoirs of a Revolutionary, essentially his autobiography, quite inordinately. Everything about it makes for compulsive reading. There are his pen-portraits of the major figures he knew, Lenin in particular; there’s his narrative flair, aided by a superb translation; and there’s his unrelenting commitment to human liberty and the individual’s right to dissent within the revolutionary context. All these things make him an unusual Marxist indeed.

This is the first appearance in English of a complete edition of this marvelous book. When it was published in the 1960s by Oxford University Press, they insisted the text was cut by one-eighth, as an “economy measure.” Now, despite the death of Peter Sedgwick, the original translator (from French), the full text has been carefully restored, and is here issued for the first time by the enterprising New York Review of Books’ publishing division.

Serge has something in common with Orwell, and indeed Orwell tried to find him a UK publisher, though without success. But Serge was a signed-up Bolshevik, something Orwell would never have been. Both, though, felt an instinctive affinity with the underdog, both wrote many memorable books, and both were aware of the extraordinary ignorance in the West of the realities of Stalinist repression, and in particular the horrors of the Moscow Show Trials of the mid-1930s, where passionate idealists were condemned to death on the basis of often ludicrously implausible confessions.

Publication notes

Memoirs of a Revolutionary

By Victor Serge

521 pages

New York Review of Books

Paperback: uS


Revolutionary

Born in Belgium in 1890 to anti-Tsarist Russian emigrants, Serge edited an anarchist newspaper in Paris in his early 20s and was sentenced to five years imprisonment for refusing to testify against a fellow activist. On his release he managed to make his way to revolutionary Russia, arriving in early 1919. There he worked alongside Gorky, Lenin, Trotsky and others, though frequently maintaining an independent line. He was finally exiled to a remote region close to modern Kazakhstan, but was released to the West after prominent writers in France agitated for his release. He spent more years in Paris, and then, as German tanks were rolling into the city, left for Mexico, where he died in 1947.

“We do not live for ourselves; we live to work and fight.” This is Serge’s fundamental philosophy, but that said, he’s everywhere equal to the truth of what he finds. Back in Belgium in 1936, he notes there are hams, chocolates, gingerbread, rice, oranges and mandarins “all within reach of an unemployed man in a working-class area without benefit of Socialism or a Plan!”

All the chapters are engrossing in different ways, but one of the best is “Defeat in the West: 1936 to 1941.” Here Serge describes his work exposing the three infamous Moscow trials of 1936 and 1937, citing them as “the beginning of the extermination of all the old revolutionary generation.” This is a continuation of Serge’s hatred of the old Soviet secret police, the Cheka, the formation of which he believes was an impermissible error of the Bolsheviks, and the equivalent of introducing the methods of the Inquisition into the revolutionary scenario.

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