Victor Serge: The Spirit of Liberty

By Jared Marcel Pollen

NB: Victor Serge was the conscience of twentieth century communism. Salute Victor! May you never be forgotten DS

A night filled with stars, a darkness filled with you

So that I could love you I had to understand the world

And before I could understand the world, I had to love you

unpublished poem by Victor Serge (Editors Note to the 1978 edition of his memoir)

The Spirit of Liberty

IF ONE WERE making an all-star list of dissident leftists, some names would be absolutely necessary. You would almost certainly have to include renegade Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. Space would also have to be given to George Orwell and Albert Camus, those great defenders of human dignity. But a special place would have to be reserved for Victor Serge, one of the most original and fiercely independent radicals of the 20th century. His remarkably historical life, during which he was witness to some of the most seismic events of the times, was lived mostly in exile or captivity. Much of his writing was composed under bitterly inhospitable conditions, and despite the best efforts of censors and inquisitors, the bulk of his work has survived.

Born in Belgium in 1890, of Russian, Polish, and Montenegrin ancestry, Victor Lvovich Kibalchich was a vagabond from birth and a true internationalist, having lived in — and been kicked out of — half a dozen countries during the course of his life, usually for his subversive activities. And although he wasn’t Jewish, he would have easily earned the Soviet’s antisemitic epithet “rootless cosmopolitan.” His father, Lev, was a member of the imperial guard and a sympathizer of the People’s Will (whose revolutionary forebears had been Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky); Lev fled the Russian Empire after the organization was implicated in the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. One of the men hanged for his involvement in the plot was one Nikolai Kibalchich, a distant relative.

The young Victor came of age during the so-called Belle Époque, a bored, bloated era of dubious peace, as Europe crept thirstily towards war. The Belgian colonization of the Congo, the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the French partition of Morocco, the assassinations of William McKinley and Elisabeth of Austria, the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair, and the moon-murdering, proto-fascist tracts of Marinetti — all heralded Europe’s imminent descent into violence. The feeling that characterized this period, Serge would later recall in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951), was one of nerve and electricity, a sense of the oncoming self-immolation of the old world, but also of hope and renewal, a sense that humanity could remake itself out of the ashes of ancient tyranny.

Like many people of his time, Serge spent most of his life caught in the gears of history. But unlike most people, his conscription was not involuntary. He was forever thrusting himself into the action. Influenced by one of Kropotkin’s pamphlets, he embraced anarchism and libertarian individualism. He then went to Paris, where got in with the city’s “illegalist” milieu in the derelict quarters of Montmartre. Going by the name of Le Rétif (“Maverick”), he led study circles in the Latin Quarter and helped pump out propaganda for an organ called l’anarchie. The slums under Sacre-Coeur, Serge recounted, were seedy and utopian, full of brothels, cafes, fights, and ideas. Though it was “shot through with contradictions,” Serge was drawn to anarchism because it satisfied the “childish” desire to “live differently” and “gave us a hold over the most intense reality: ourselves.” It offered, in other words, an ostensible chance to live out the Rousseauian dictum: Be yourself…

Book review: Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge – life in the Stalinist Soviet Union

Jairus Banaji – Revolution Destroyed

Love and Anarchy: Emma Goldman’s passion for free expression

Book Review: Victor Serge; Memoirs of a Revolutionary

The Bolshevik Heritage. By Dilip Simeon

By Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)

I came into the cities in a time of disorder
As hunger reigned.
I came among men in a time of turmoil
And I rose up with them.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

I ate my food between slaughters.
I lay down to sleep among murderers.
I tended to love with abandon.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

In my time streets led into a swamp.
My language betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers sat more securely, or so I hoped.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

The powers were so limited. The goal
Lay far in the distance
It could clearly be seen although even I
Could hardly hope to reach it.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

You, who shall resurface following the flood
In which we have perished,
Contemplate –
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also the dark time
That you have escaped.
For we went forth, changing our country more frequently than our shoes
Through the class warfare, despairing
That there was only injustice and no outrage

And yet we know well
Even hatred of vileness
Distorts a man’s features.
Even anger at injustice
Makes hoarse his voice. Ah, we
Who sought to prepare the soil for kindness
Could not ourselves be kind