V ictor Serge was born in Brussels in 1890. In 1908 he went to Paris, where he edited an anarchist paper.
His views at this time were individualistic and highly elitist—he scarcely concealed his contempt for working people. Serge’s life shows how people change under the impact of circumstances.
Once he heard about the Russian Revolution of 1917, he aimed to get involved. In January 1919 he reached Petrograd.
In May that year he joined the Communist Party—a brave choice, since the city was besieged by armies who would have massacred any Communists they captured.
In the frenetic atmosphere of the revolution he worked as journalist, teacher, schools inspector, gun-runner, translator and archivist.
While acutely aware of the regime’s defects—authoritarian trends, activities of the secret police—he felt a great loyalty to the revolution, and tried to win other anarchists to support it.
In the early 1920s he realised that, unless the revolution spread across Europe, it would be crushed. He spent four years in Germany and Austria as a journalist and organiser.
By the time he returned to Russia, Stalin was firmly on top. Serge became an active member of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, and was deported to a remote area. But a vigorous campaign was mounted in France for his release.
Serge was allowed to leave Russia shortly before Stalin unleashed a bloody purge in which Serge would certainly have died.
Serge broke formal links with Trotsky (he believed in a broader, more open form of organisation), but he produced a stream of books and articles in which he exposed what was going wrong in Russia.
In his novels—notably The Case of Comrade Tulayev and his Memoirs of a Revolutionary—Serge became the voice of a lost and murdered generation.
Though Serge examined the weaknesses of the revolution from its inception, he never accepted the idea that the revolution automatically led to Stalinism.
On the contrary, he stressed the way in which the rising bureaucracy had crushed the potential revealed in the first few years of the revolution: “I sympathise with all who go against the current—looking to preserve the ideas, principles and spirit of the October Revolution.”
He summed up the argument neatly: “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection.
“Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.”
Faced with the argument that Russian society was more progressive than capitalism because it had a “planned economy” he offered the simple retort, “In every case, finally, when confronted with a planned economy, we should pose the question: Planned by whom? Planned for whom? Planned with what end?”
When the Nazis occupied France he sought asylum in Mexico. Even there he was attacked and nearly killed by Stalin’s followers.
But despite all the defeats he had seen, he never lost faith in the future of socialism. As he asked, “How many times does a child fall before he learns to walk?”
Nor did he fall into the trap of those for whom opposing Communism became more important than defending working class interests.
He summed up his life in words of great resilience: “I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries, and written 20 books. I own nothing.
“On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet.
“Let me be done with this digression—those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.”
In 1947, exhausted by years of struggle and poverty, he died of a heart attack.
A comrade described the corpse of one of the great writers of the 20th century: “A cloth bandage covered the mouth that all the tyrannies of the century had not been able to shut. One might have thought that he was a vagabond who had been taken in out of charity.”