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The return of the steadfast radical

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge, Translated from the French by Peter Sedgwick, University of Iowa Press: 404 pp., $24.95 paper

January 12, 2003|Matthew Price | Matthew Price writes frequently for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Like novelists George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, vagabond writer and radical Victor Serge was a seminal witness to the catastrophes of totalitarianism. But today Serge is undoubtedly the least known of the three. The economics of publishing have been not kind to Serge: "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," his great novel of Stalin's purges, has long been out of print, as has his most remarkable work, "Memoirs of a Revolutionary." (My battered, disintegrating copy is held together by a rubber band). Serge, it seems, has no place even in the dusty corners of secondhand shops; finding used editions of his work is often a fruitless task.

But among a small legion of dedicated scholars and writers, interest in Serge remains steadfast. Journalists Adam Hochschild and Christopher Hitchens have long carried his banner, reminding us that Serge is one of the 20th century's greatest political writers and a vigorous, unbowed tribune for a humane socialism. Serge sounded an early alarm about the cruelties of the Soviet Union but never joined the shrill chorus of ex-communists. He remained a proud, thoughtful man of the left, whose faith in Marxism never dimmed. By his own characterization, he was an "intransigent," a disposition that often left him lonely and isolated.

After he died in 1947, an obituarist in the journal Modern Review wrote that Serge's "chef-d'oeuvre was his own life." This is not an exaggeration: Serge's journey reads like something out of an Alan Furst thriller. Russian by ancestry -- his anti-Czarist parents fled Russia in the 1880s -- but Belgian by birth, he was variously an anarchist, a Bolshevik, a Trotskyist. A rebel to his bones, he invariably found himself in trouble wherever he set down. Before the Russian Revolution, he lived in Paris on the margins, a denizen, as he pungently described it, of a "vast world of irregulars, outcasts, paupers, and criminals." He wrote, edited, agitated and was jailed for his connections to a gang of anarchist bank robbers. An organizer and activist (even, for a time, a Comintern agent) in the early days of the Soviet Union, he would become one of its most profound critics. Though a supporter of the revolutionary cause, Serge never ceased striking out against the perversions of revolution, a stance that earned him countless political enemies. Jailed, banished to the arid plains of Central Asia, then exiled and hounded across Europe in the '30s by Stalin's goon squads, he paid a high price for his dissidence: The Stalinist press reviled him and timid publishers refused to print his books. Despite the sympathetic advocacy of Dwight Macdonald and Orwell, Serge would struggle to the end. He died, as he was born, a stateless man.

The best account of his life remains his "Memoirs," and one hopes its re-publication wins Serge the wider readership he deserves. Hochschild, who provides a tender and judicious introduction for this new edition, rightly calls Serge's "Memoirs" "his masterpiece ... [which belongs] on the same small shelf as the other great political testaments of the twentieth century, books like Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' and Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia.' "

But in its force and idiosyncratic splendor, "Memoirs" surpasses those classics. An impassioned work of burning intensity, Serge's "Memoirs" charts not only his own harrowing odyssey through the revolutionary maelstrom of interwar Europe but also the tragic fortunes of an entire generation of leftists and fellow revolutionaries, many of whom disappeared into the vast network of Stalin's jails, were murdered or committed suicide as their revolutionary hopes were extinguished. ("I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent and historical character, has often overwhelmed me," Serge movingly wrote of his dead comrades.)

Literary critic Irving Howe once observed that Serge "was primarily an observer, a superior journalist from whose books there emanates the heat and turmoil of historical immediacy." "Memoirs" is a supreme confirmation of this judgment. Not least, Serge's pages are valuable for his superb portraiture of the gallery of intellectuals and political radicals he encountered in his travels, among them Hungarian revolutionaries Bela Kun and George Lukacs, Italian activist Antonio Gramsci, French novelist Henri Barbusse and Andreu Nin, the martyred Spanish Marxist (the book practically doubles as a who's who of international communism), as well as the prime movers of the Bolshevik Party: Nikolai Bukharin, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev.

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