Blogging Victor Serge

Victor Serge seems to be becoming more and more prominent these days, which I welcome. It’s partly because his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev features on various lists of books to read before you die and NYRB have added Memoirs of a Revolutionary to their library of his books in their Classics series, with an intro by the wonderful historian Adam Hochschild. I think it is also fair to say that Christopher Hitchens’ championing of him has played a role, Hitchens having come to Serge in his youthful International Socialist days, before their Leninist turn. In 2003 he wrote:

After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.

Serge features in Hitchens’ posthumous Arguably: as one of the “intellectual misfits…ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler”, dying in “penurious exile in Mexico”.

Far less well known than Hitchens, Richard Greeman deserves credit for keeping the Serge legacy alive too. You can listen to his “Conscience of a Revolution” broadcast here.

Here is some recent Serge-blogging:

  • James Bloodworth nominates him as an intellectual hero.
  • Adam David Morton starts what looks like an excellent series on his novels.
  • Orwell mentions him in his 1942 diary:  The Communists in Mexico are again chasing Victor Serge and other Trotskyist refugees who got there from France, urging their expulsion, etc., etc. Just the same tactics as in Spain. Horrible depressed to see these ancient intrigues coming up again, not so much because they are morally disgusting as from the reflection; for 20 years the Comintern has used these methods and the Comintern has always and everywhere been defeated by the Fascists; therefore we, being tied to them in a species of alliance, shall be defeated with them.
  • More negatively: A Churl attacks Susan Sontag’s introduction to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (from the same NYRB series mentioned above). The petty, mean-spirited, Stalinoid post is mainly worth reading for his quotations from Sontag, which I reproduce below the fold.

Image above via War and Peace, from whom I also took the Hitchens quote.



It was the climate of opinion that made the courageous Romanian-born writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) consider withdrawing his truthful report on a sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in 1927-1928, Vers une autre flamme (Towards Another Flame), at the behest of the powerful French literary patron, Romain Rolland, which, when he did publish it, was rejected by all his former friends and supporters in the literary world; and that led André Malraux in his capacity as editor at Gallimard to turn down the adversarial biography of Stalin by the Russian-born Boris Souvarine (1895-1984; real name: Boris Lifchitz) as inimical to the cause of the Spanish Republic.[…]

And there was more: a memoir of the anarchist movement in pre-First World War France, a novel about the Russian Revolution, a short book of poems, and a historical chronicle of Year II of the Revolution, all confiscated when Serge was finally allowed to leave the USSR in 1936, as the consequence of his having applied to Glavlit, the literary censor, for an exit permit for his manuscripts – these have never been recovered – as well as a great deal of safely archived but still unpublished material.[…]


This post is indebted to my friend Kellie Strom, whose art you can view here.

I have been digging around the Galeria d’Imatges site, a Catalan blog about graphic design, and found all sorts of wonders. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope they don’t mind me publicising them by pasting some of their images here. Please click on the images to go to the original posts.

Socors Roig. Ajut de reraguarda. POUM. Barcelona, 1936. Litografia a 3 tintes (Groc, negre i verd). Il·lustració Casals.



[Panait] Istrati shared the leftist ideals of [Romain] Rolland, and, as much as his mentor, placed his hopes in the Bolshevik vision. In 1927 he visited the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the October Revolution. He was joined in Moscow by his future close friend, Nikos Kazantzakis. In 1928-29, after a tumultuous stay in Greece (were he was engaged in fights with the police and invited to leave the country), he went again to the Soviet Union. Through extended visits in more remote places, Istrati learned the full truth of Joseph Stalin’s communist dictatorship, out of which experience he wrote his famous book, The Confession of a Loser, the first in the succession of disenchantments expressed by intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, André Gide and George Orwell. Istrati came back to Romania ill and demoralized, was treated for tuberculosis in Nice, then returned to Bucharest. In fact, the political opinions Istrati expressed after his split with Bolshevism are rather ambiguous. He was still closely watched by the Romanian secret police (Siguranţa Statului), and he had written an article (dated April 8, 1933) in the French magazine Les Nouvelles Littéraires, aptly titled L’homme qui n’adhère à rien (The man who will adhere to nothing).”

The cover above is of The Thistles of the Bărăgan, whose 1957 Romanian cover can be seen here.


HERNÁNDEZ, JESÚS. Yo fuí un ministro de Stalin. Mèxic, Editorial América, 1953. Il·lustració de Ramón Pontones (23 x 17 cm.)

Jesus Hernández was born in Spain in 1906. He held left-wing political views and in his youth he joined the Communist Party (PCE). Hernández was later to admit that he took part in a failed assassination attempt on the life [of] Indalecio Prieto, one of the leaders of the Socialist Party (PSOE).

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Hernández was editor of the [C]ommunist newspaper, Mundo Obrero. In September 1936, President Manuel Azaña appointed the left-wing socialist, Francisco Largo Caballero as prime minister. Largo Caballero brought into his government two [C]ommunists [including] Hernández (Education).

Hernández, a strong opponent of the anarchists, spent the next few months trying to persuade Largo Caballero to bring the Anarchist Brigades under the control of the Nationalist Army. During the May Riots in Barcelona Hernández argued that Worker’s Party (POUM) should be outlawed. When Largo Caballero refused, he helped to force the prime minister to resign.

[…] In 1939 Hernández fled to the Soviet Union and became an executive member of Comintern. He soon became disillusioned with the rule of Joseph Stalin and went to live in Mexico.

In his memoirs published in 1953, Hernández admitted that he was following orders from Stalin to oust Francisco Largo Caballero and to get him replaced by Juan Negrin. He also claimed that Stalin did not really care about the Republicans winning the Spanish Civil War and was more concerned with blocking German influence in the country. Jesus Hernández died in 1966.”

A related project is Piscolabis librorum. Here is a cover image there of a book on the Stalinist purges in Civil War Barcelona.
And this is from a post about anti-fascist cards after the May Days.
[…] Entre una edició i una altra, però, hi ha vàries pàgines que canvien totalment de contingut i no només de matisos. Això està relacionat amb els fets de maig del 1937. Les pagines més significatives són, doncs, les que corresponen a Largo Caballero (PSOE), president de Govern que dimití arran d’aquests fets i que en la segona edició és substituït per Pablo Iglesias, fundador del PSOE i la UGT però, alhora, l’introductor del marxisme a Espanya. D’aquesta manera, el líder socialista del moment és substituït per un difunt cosa que marca un cert allunyament d’un tarannà partidista tan marcat. El mateix passa amb el fotomuntatge de Los sindicatos deben apoyar al gobierno en el qual els emblemes de la UGT i la CNT tenien un gran preponderància en la primera edició. Aquest fotomuntatge fou substituït -hàbilment i sense cap sigla partidista- per un altre de referit a un difunt il·lustre: Durruti (Durruti murió luchando por la libertad), líder anarquista però de qui la propaganda republicana es va apropiar i el va convertir en una espècie de Ché Guevara avant-la-lettre, de manera que tothom que era d’esquerres podia identificar-s’hi. El dors d’aquests fotomuntatges continuen tenint les mateixes consignes i sil·labari en la segona edició que en la primera, la qual cosa demostra aquesta substitució intencionada d’algunes pàgines concretes.[…]
If you lke this post, you’ll like El Gabinet NegreBibliofilia novohispana and 50 Watts.