Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power and Conquered City, by Victor Serge [Review]

Victor Serge has mainly been known for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, but recently his novels have again started to receive the attention they deserve. Not only do they show him to be one of the greatest political writers, but they depict the atmosphere and meaning of the major upheavals of this century. Serge wrote entirely from his own experiences and was never a theorist extrapolating political fantasies into real situations. He was born and lived in poverty and so never patronised the working class by idealising it in the manner of the bourgeois liberal. We are not spared the CNT secretary running off with the funds, the cowards, traitors or self-seekers and this brings out the bravery and determination of the majority in a way that no hack cosmetician could ever achieve. As a result his writing is probably the most faithful mirror for the Anarchist movement to look into and recognise its faults and virtues, its weaknesses and strengths.

Victor Serge was born in Brussels in 1890 to revolutionary parents who had been forced to flee the Tsarist regime. In his youth he moved to France and spent a short time in an Anarchist commune. At the age of twenty he became the editor of "Anarchie" in Paris. Two years later he was implicated in the trial of the 'Bonnot gang', and was sentenced to five years in prison. This experience was the basis for Men in Prison. On release he went to Barcelona and took part in the CNT uprising (first part of Birth of Our Power). He was then interned for a year in France en route for Russia and he finally reached Petrograd in 1919 (second part of Birth of Our Power) and took part in its defence against the Whites (Conquered City). By this time he had become depressed by Anarchist disorganisation and joined the Comintern under Zinoviev. This change of attitude is described thus: "Their fault is in being admirable… we need technicians, not great or admirable men. Technicians specialised in the liberation of the masses … to take the mechanisms of history apart."

He served abroad as an agent of the Comintern but returned to Russia in 1926 to take part in the last stand of the left opposition and soon afterwards he was expelled from the Communist Party and relieved of all official positions. Being deprived of work, he started writing and sent his manuscripts to France. (Year One of the Russian Revolution and Men in Prison, 1930. Birth of Our Power, 1931 and Conquered City, 1932). He was arrested in 1933 and three years later he was deprived of his citizenship and expelled from Russia after being saved by a campaign for his release by Gide, Malraux and other French Communist intellectuals, (a remarkable event in itself at a time when it was 'class treason' for a party member to support a Soviet prisoner). Serge's other manuscripts were confiscated by the secret police as he left and apparently his finest Anarchist novel may still be in some KGB filing cabinet.

His arrival in Europe was very different to that of Solzhenitsyn, as Richard Greeman the translator, points out in an excellent introduction. He was villified by the communist publications and ignored by the bourgeois press for Serge was still a revolutionary and had no illusions about western freedom the way Solzhenitsyn did forty years later. Serge moved on to Spain and became a councillor of the P.O.U.M. and was a close friend of Andres Nin. He escaped the SIM [Secret Police] purges but had to flee before Franco's army and then had to leave Paris a year later as the Nazis advanced. Only Mexico would allow him in and he lived there in abject poverty still writing. The two most important works which he produced in the latter period were The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Memoirs of a Revolutionary. He was buried in 1947 as a 'Spanish Republican' in the French section of the Mexico City cemetery. He was a stateless revolutionary in every sense.

Men in Prison can be compared with other autobiographical prison novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but none of them come near the honesty, and insight of Serge. He does not just show the horror of only a Soviet camp as in Solzhenitsyn's writing, but his breadth of vision illustrates the mentality of prisons and the State everywhere. It is an utterly human document which never lapses into propaganda or stereotypes, and his strength of feeling never warps his judgement.

Birth of Our Power starts with an optimistic view of Anarchist strength (mirroring reality) in Barcelona towards the end of the First World War. Powerful hopes grow with the news from Russia and they believe that Europe can be set alight at both ends. But then Serge's realism becomes as strong as his idealism when he starts to see that they are doomed without organisation as the rising approaches. There is a superb description of a bullfight as the tension grows with the rich sitting in the shade uneasily watching the workers sweating in the sun on the far side. Self-confidence is apparent in their manner for they are certain of the coming of "the worker's Messiah — the Revolution". But without careful planning and by relying on opportunist bourgeois politicians the revolt hardly gets off the ground. Soon afterwards, Serge says farewell to his comrades including Dario who is based on Salvador Segui, and sets off for Russia via France. There he is interned and the camp is an uncontrived reflection of contemporary society with the entrepreneurs and their victims, both nominally free and yet surrounded by wire fences and armed guards.

With the armistice the Russians are allowed to leave for Petrograd and the book finishes with his initial reactions on arriving and the news of Dario's death.

Conquered City takes up the story and describes the defence of Petrograd against the Whites, but this book is a 'real novel' and not a slightly fictionalised personal narrative. It is a masterpiece in the way it describes atmosphere and events, for Serge does without a central character and builds the book through small sketches which grow into a broad and yet finely detailed mosaic. But this is no propaganda epic of proletarian nobility. A hack constructing a sterile two dimensional tableau would ignore or be blind to the subtle and glaring contrasts which Serge portrays with his relentless honesty. He is not blinded by lofty talk of revolutionary heroism for he has experienced and records for us the betrayals, the squalor, the hunger, the pettiness, the jealousies, and the selfishness which formed the sombre and menacing backdrop to the bravery and idealism. His description includes showing how authoritarians instantly turned themselves into a priviliged class in the midst of the turmoil. We see the pigs of Animal Farm justifying their special rations "because they needed to think for the workers", those who laboured fifteen hours a day or more on sub starvation levels with only empty rhetoric and false promises to keep them going. Men and women who had already started to distrust their new masters and were yet convinced by them that a return to their old exploiters was the only alternative. "It is only a temporary measure, Comrades".

As Serge said in Birth of Our Power: "Already in a few hours we had learned more about the Revolution than in many long meditations. And it appeared to us under aspects very different from those suggested by our imagination, shaped by legend and by history, which is very close to legend." His greatest legacy to us is his warning, which is only effective because it comes from a true revolutionary who never lost faith, of how authoritarianism is bound to develop in the inevitable chaos of a revolution unless libertarians are prepared and their organisation is already growing healthily to combat those who claim power to 'safeguard the revolution'. Victor Serge was uniquely qualified to feel and understand both sides through experience, but he was never disillusioned. The Writers and Readers Publishing co-operative are to be congratulated on these editions with their excellent introductions and summary of his life. The slight difference in price over other paperback versions is well worth it.


From: From Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #5 (1980).