JUNE 22, 2013
I STILL REMEMBER ZUCOTTI PARK in the fall of 2011. I was struck by the way the encampment seemed both very abstract — an open-ended protest without a conventional list of goals — and mundanely practical, as people dealt with distributing food, resolving noise complaints, and deciding on sleeping arrangements. Despite its flaws, the protests were a compelling metaphor for the fact that some measure of utopianism — not only the desire but the need to create a better world — is necessary to achieve real political progress or reform. Progressivism in all its variations is ultimately an idealistic project because it involves pushing history forward — sometimes gradually, sometimes all in a rush, but always forward. I first understood that by reading Victor Serge. And as a result, I couldn’t help thinking about him through my entire visit to the original Occupy protest.
Born Victor Kibalchich to Russian political exiles living in Brussels, he joined almost every major left-wing struggle of the early 20th century, from the French anarchist movement to the Bolsheviks’ revolution in Russia. (Kibalchich adopted the name “Serge” during World War I.) He eventually became one of the earliest and most vocal internal critics of Stalin. After being exiled from the USSR, he even joined the French Resistance during World War II. After his break with the Soviet regime, Serge helped pioneer the idea of an independent left unbeholden to the Communist Party — inspired at least in part by his reflexive, anarchist distaste for orthodoxy.
As the scholar Todd Gitlin, a key student leader during the 1960s, recently observed, “Anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century.” This continues today: anarchists were particularly prominent among the early organizers for the Occupy movement. For this reason, Serge serves as a bridge between the revolutionary communities of the early 20th century and the diffuse, non-hierarchical protest movements that emerged after World War II. It’s fitting that the first unabridged US edition of his seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary was released May 1, 2012, the same day Occupy attempted to reinvigorate itself with a large-scale protest in New York City. While Serge certainly wasn’t the “original Occupier,” he did help create the intellectual space out of which Occupy — and, more importantly, Occupy’s offshoots — was born.
Part of what makes the Memoirs in particular so fascinating is the way it surveys Serge’s time as a political revolutionary. Indeed, very little time is spent discussing his literary career, and even less on his wives, children, and private life. He lived on his own from the age of 13, and before finding politics drifted on the edges of society with other wayward youths. “We needed a principle,” he explains, “a way of life.” He eventually met the Belgian anarchist theorist Emile Chapelier, who offered one. Anarchism not only gave Serge a cause, it gave him an identity: “Libertarian individualism gave us a hold on the most intense reality: ourselves.” It also gave him purpose. As he explains, “[A]narchism demanded, before anything else, harmony between deeds and words.” He didn’t merely espouse anarchist doctrine, he lived it: moving to Paris, keeping to the margins of society (he even lived in the proverbial garret above an inn), founding an anarchist study circle called La Libre Recherche (Free Inquiry) and editing the journal L’Anarchie, which was founded by anarchist philosopher Albert Libertad, another early influence.
At L’Anarchie, Serge became an important intellectual leader in the French anarchist community. This brought him into contact, and conflict, with the more violent elements in the movement. Chief among these was the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect that turned to what Serge calls “illegalism” in order to fund their activities. Serge abhorred their criminality, complaining, “I saw the whole of the movement […] dragged into the scum of society by madness.” Nevertheless, he refused to cooperate in a 1912 police investigation of the gang, citing police misconduct and a general disapproval of the French government. As a result of this intransigence, Serge found himself under arrest, even though he was not involved in the Bonnot Gang’s activities and had never even met Jules Bonnot himself. As he explains, “I was only there because of my categorical refusal to talk; that is, to become an informer.” This kind of absolute antiauthoritarianism, a refusal to accept the legitimacy of institutions he deemed corrupt, remained a cornerstone of his beliefs throughout the rest of his life and is a key leitmotif in the Memoirs.
After his release, Serge moved through Europe, working with other anarchists to foment revolution across the continent. After a failed 1917 uprising in Spain, he made his way back to France, only to end up imprisoned again later that year during a crackdown on political agitators. There, he met Russian radicals, who told him about the revolution happening in their country and introduced Serge to Bolshevism. Inspired, he allowed the French government to exile him to Russia, reaching the communist stronghold of Petrograd in 1919. Frustration with the ineffectiveness of the disorganized Russian anarchists led Serge to join the Communist Party, explaining at the time, “the Bolsheviks are the ones who dared. And that’s all that counts.”
Yet Serge’s alliance with the Bolsheviks didn’t — and in retrospect couldn’t — last. As early as 1920, he was warning, “Power exerts on those who exercise it a pernicious influence.” In his view, all of a movement’s actions needed to reflect its highest ideals; anything less risked changing its character. Though he supported the use of force during the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War that followed, Serge criticized tactics he saw as excessive. He particularly objected to the creation of the secret police, or Cheka (a forerunner of the KGB), and in the Memoirs declares, “[T]he formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads.”
The Chekist mentality encouraged the use of force early and often against “enemies” of the Communist Party and based social control on the use of force by the state. The rise of the Cheka coincided with a period of centralization in both the Soviet government and the Party itself. This resulted in a stifling political orthodoxy. As Serge explains in the Memoirs, “I hold truth to be a precondition of physical and moral health […] [R]espect for man implies his right to know everything and his freedom to think.” With the Soviet Union’s descent into dictatorship complete, following the rise of Stalin, Serge didn’t merely walk away from the Party; he became one of its fiercest and most articulate detractors. On February 1, 1933, he wrote an open letter to the French intellectual community, declaring the USSR a “totalitarian state.” This is reputed to be the first time this term was ever applied to the Soviet Union. The letter (reproduced in the Memoirs) was circulated in Western Europe shortly after his arrest that March, making him one of the USSR’s first public dissidents.
To the extent that Serge is remembered today, it’s largely due to this stand. His early and vocal opposition to Stalin is the reason Susan Sontag anointed him “one of the most compelling of twentieth century ethical and literary heroes.” It’s also the major reason figures ranging from George Orwell to Dwight Macdonald to André Gide openly admired him. But if Serge were merely a very brave man who stood up to a tyrant at a time when many others did not, his work would only matter to historians. His best work endures, though, because he is an idiosyncratic thinker, synthesizing elements from political traditions that seem separate if not downright contradictory: communism, anarchism, and humanism. Though his thinking predates the strictly nonviolent resistance efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and is the poorer for it, his intellectual honesty, moral directness, and idealism make him a compelling and timely figure.
Ironically, for a self-identified man of action, Serge’s beliefs are best reflected in his literary output. One could even say that the form of Serge’s Memoirs in particular expresses his politics just as explicitly as its content. Throughout the Memoirs, he weaves small portraits of associates and fellow revolutionaries, some famous — like Leon Trotsky, Walter Benjamin, György Lukács, or Emma Goldman — but most not. In effect, he hands much of his Memoirs over to the lives of others. It is the story of a man told through his community and the story of a community told through a man. He spends a lot of time recounting the lives of activists who died young. As he explains, “[H]e who speaks, he who writes is essentially someone speaking for all those who are voiceless.” He is telling others’ stories because they cannot. Serge’s use of these “short lives” serves as both a literary device and a political statement; as he puts it, “I view human personality as a supreme value, only integrated in society and in history.” Unusually for a memoirist, he also favors the pronoun we over the more traditional I.
He calls himself a “personalist,” to distinguish himself from a traditional humanist. “Personalism” essentially combines the radical libertarian belief in the importance of the individual with the communist belief in the importance of the entire community, refusing to see either as mutually exclusive. To Serge, all the left-wing groups with which he worked were part of the same struggle against oppression. He manages to become the very rarest of political species: a man dedicated to utopian ideals who is nonetheless skeptical of utopianism itself. Serge’s distrust of movements — even well-intentioned ones — led him places that others on the left found only later.
On its face, a conclusion that Serge drew could even be seen in a conservative light:
Lenin’s “proletarian Jacobinism,” with its detachment and discipline both in thought and action, grafted upon the preexisting temperament of activists molded by the old regime, that is the struggle against despotism. I am quite convinced that a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result.
After all, the sentiment wouldn’t be all that out of place in the writings of Edmund Burke. And like Burke, Serge is ever sensitive to the risks of political violence. As he wrote in 1919, from the midst of war-torn Petrograd, “Revolution implies violence. All violence is dictatorial.” In order to succeed, the Party needed to nurture men who were talented at violent struggle — but the result was that the Party ended up stocked with leaders with authoritarian temperaments. But this insight doesn’t lead Serge to move rightward. Instead, he becomes Burke’s mirror image, sharing superficial similarities with the British conservative icon while becoming his complete opposite. He believed radicals needed to be aware of violence’s tyrannical power, and careful in its application. But he never accepts that violence automatically invalidates revolutionary struggle. Serge never foreswore revolution — indeed, he continued to revere the Russian Revolution, considering it a noble cause “betrayed” by Stalin. Instead, he came to believe revolutionary movements needed to hold themselves to an exacting standard, never adopting any approach at odds with their own goals. In this way, a writer skeptical of utopia adopted the purist utopianism imaginable: the utopianism of deeds. As he puts it in the Memoirs, “[T]he end, far from justifying the means, commands its own means.”
After this realization, Serge didn’t just break from Stalinism; he distanced himself from orthodox Marxism altogether, concluding, “I cannot help considering as a positive disaster the fact that a Marxist orthodoxy should, in a great country in the throes of social transformation, have taken over the apparatus of power.” He even points to “party patriotism” as a major reason Stalin’s purges were so successful — many were unwilling to oppose him openly because they didn’t want to side against the Party itself. But while it is Bolshevism in particular Serge is criticizing, it is ultimately orthodoxy itself he views as the main problem. This is particularly evident when he recounts the horror he caused in fellow Bolsheviks by expressing his belief that “One can leave a Party!” Many of his compatriots simply didn’t agree that was possible. They loved the Party itself, viewing it as one with the cause for which it was supposed to be fighting. Serge, however, judged the Party through more unsentimental — and therefore, paradoxically, more idealistic — eyes. He expected it to act justly; if it wouldn’t, its stated program didn’t matter. By taking such a strong stand against blind party loyalty, Serge set the stage for the unaligned radical movements that sprung up after World War II.
Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement.
In a sense, idealism plays the role in political life that a conscience plays in moral life: it puts into relief what is right and wrong (or, if you prefer, desirable and undesirable) as opposed to what is simply possible or not possible. But Serge also pushes against the politics of self-expression. Politics can easily become a kind of identity, something that gives shape and meaning to one’s life. It’s nice to feel “right” and to be around others who will reinforce that feeling. The risk, of course, is that a movement centered around its members’ feeling of “rightness” will quickly become insular — after all, engaging the wider world means disagreement and carries the risk of being proved wrong by events. Serge isn’t interested in being “on the right side of history.” He wants to improve people’s lives. As a result, his unsentimental utopianism serves as a rebuke not only to those infatuated with violence for its own sake, but to self-referential radical movements too involved in internal debates to engage the outside world. And he offers an even more compelling warning to “pragmatists” who allow themselves to get so caught up in the political process that they (we) risk letting the promise of some undefined compromise get in the way of real change.
For me, the two most intriguing post-Occupy offshoots are Occupy Sandy, a volunteer effort to help hurricane victims organized in part by Occupy veterans, and the Rolling Jubilee, a private debt-relief effort. Both are fairly apolitical, practical enterprises. By focusing on smaller, more accessible projects, activists are able to reach out to the kind of people who would never join an Occupy encampment, as well as keep the “means” of the group squarely in line with their “end.” The Rolling Jubilee is particularly intriguing because it both extends some relief to debtors victimized by an unregulated financial system and introduces people to the abstract ideas put forth by more ambitious — and therefore more less immediately accessible — Occupy descendants like Strike the Debt, who are looking to spark a bigger, system-wide conversation.
That wider conversation is the ultimate, long-term test of Occupy and all its descendants. It will take more small efforts like the Rolling Jubilee and a lot of organizing by a range of people along a broad political spectrum. It will also require an extraordinary effort to stay focused on the problem at hand, instead of turning toward insular concerns — the way some Occupy veterans allowed themselves to get distracted fighting Trinity Church in Manhattan in a dust-up over logistics that had nothing to do with debt, the financial industry, or the “99 percent.” Serge provides a way of looking at politics — an effort to balance idealism and realism, abstract ideals and concrete human lives — that speaks to the challenges faced by those who want a conversation about the private debt crisis to take place. For that reason, I find myself returning to him more and more. And hoping others will do the same.