David Harvey famously opined that Paris was ‘a capital city being shaped by bourgeois power into a city of capital’, hence his focus on the organisation of relations of space in Paris, Capital of Modernity. It is an insight that Victor Serge may well have approved given the writer’s own acute awareness of the spatial order of urban development across not just Paris but also Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Petrograd, Moscow, Marseille and more.
This spatial awareness comes through vividly in Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which also offers a rich and wide array of insights. The book has been published in a complete unabridged version by NYRB Classics accompanied by a wonderfully detailed glossary by Richard Greeman. To do justice to this important document in a short blog post would be nearly impossible. There is more detail elsewhere in my recent article in Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Nevertheless, my aim here is to tease out some of the detail in the translator Peter Sedgwick’s comment that the book focuses on the ‘degenerescence of revolutions’ without collapsing into some kind of fatalism.
The memoirs themselves were written in 1942-43 after Serge had finally settled in Mexico as a ‘stateless refugee’ fleeing not only a decaying Europe but also the terror of Stalin. These conditions inspired his novel The Long Dusk  that closes what Richard Greeman has delineated as the ‘cycle of resistance’ trilogy consisting also of Midnight in the Century  and The Case of Comrade Tulayev . Prior to that is also the ‘cycle of revolution’ trilogy made up of Men in Prison ; Birth of Our Power ; and Conquered City . Outside of these groupings of novels there is also Unforgiving Years  and then we must not forget the two ‘lost’ novels: Les Hommes perdues (an autobiographical piece on the French anarchist movement) and La Tourmente (on the zenith of the Russian Revolution in 1920) both stolen by the State Political Directorate (GPU). Serge comments in his memoirs that the latter novel ‘best conveyed the grandeur of the Revolution’ in Russia.
‘After Dostoyevsky’, writes Christopher Hitchens, ‘and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge’. Serge’s memoirs offer an unrivalled insight into the psychosis of absolute power and the emergence of totalitarianism in Soviet Russia.
A revolution seems monolithic only from a distance; close up it can be compared to a torrent that violently sweeps along both the best and the worst at the same time, and necessarily carries along some real counterrevolutionary currents. It is constrained to pick up the worn weapons of the old regime, and these arms are double-edged. In order to be properly served, it has to be put on guard against its own abuses, its own excesses, its own crimes, its own moments of reaction. It has a vital need of criticism, therefore, of an opposition and of the civic courage of those who are carrying it out . . . by 1920 we were already short of the mark.
In illuminating chapters on the anguish and enthusiasm of revolutionary fervour in the ‘frontline city’ of Petrograd (1919-1920) and the subsequent danger from within (1920-21), Serge conveys his cognisance as a participant-witness in the Russian Civil War of the mistake of perpetuating the terror. He was convinced that the revolution could have proclaimed its reverence for human life in its early years rather than disowning its own promises. ‘What psychoses of fear and of power prevented it?’
There are gripping passages and insights in the memoirs that explore this question, for example on the Kronstadt Uprising (1921), the New Economic Policy (1921), the Third Congress of the Communist International (or Comintern) (1921), and the Left Opposition. On emergent totalitarianism, Serge declares that, ‘the great ideas of 1917, which had enabled the Bolshevik Party to win over the peasant masses, the army, the working class, and the Marxist intelligentsia, were quite clearly dead’. Along the way there are character sketches of Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Karl Radek.
While on the editorial staff of Inprekorr, the press agency of the Comintern, Serge also published extensively in Correspondance Internationale from Germany in 1923 (see Witness to the German Revolution). He later worked in Vienna with both Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, describing the latter as ‘an industrious and Bohemian exile, late to bed and late to rise, working with the illegal Committee of the Italian Communist Party’. Elaborating, Serge recalls how, in 1926:
When the crisis in Russia began to worsen, Gramsci did not want to be broken in the process, so he had himself sent back to Italy by his Party: he, who was identifiable at the first glance because of his deformity and his great forehead . . . Our years of darkness were his stubborn years of resistance.
Those years of darkness encompassed the deadlock of revolution, resistance, and captivity with Serge condemned to three years of deportation to Orenburg on the Ural River, in 1933, for ‘counterrevolutionary conspiracy’. With Khirgiz families confronting famine conditions and harsh winter weather temperatures of minus 42°, Serge grimly concludes that ‘Orenburg was considered a privileged spot for deportation. The GPU only used it for leading figures and for convicts who already had behind them years of imprisonment or exile in other parts’. It was at this time that the two ‘lost’ manuscripts were retained by the GPU, despite guarantees that Serge’s copies had been sent safely to Romain Rolland, who actually read one of them during his time in the Kremlin, returning the manuscript to the director of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda. So much for pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!
Departing Soviet Russia in 1936 with his son, Vladimir, Serge travels via Warsaw to Paris, then exits Europe via Marseille to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and eventually arriving in Mexico in 1941. ‘The loveliness of Havana, its sensual delight feeding on electricity—this after our pitifully dark European cities . . . We arrive in Havana while the battle of Leningrad is beginning, and we are haunted by mental pictures of the fighting over there’.
Sensitive to the plight of those he has left behind in distant devastated cities, plunged into blackout, these poignant memoirs of Victor Serge conclude with some fundamental reflections on the character of the Russian Revolution. Despite detectable seeds of intolerance and the persecution of dissent, there was no ‘fatal stamp’ determining the outcome of the revolutionary epoch of the Civil War (1917-1922) (see Revolution in Danger). The human factor, after all, intervened in shaping broader economic-historical conditions that must prompt one to pronounce against historical fatalism.
We revolutionaries, who aimed to create a new society, “the broadest democracy of the workers”, had unwittingly, with our own hands, constructed the most terrifying State machine conceivable, and when, with revulsion, we realised the truth, this machine, driven by our friends and comrades, turned on us and crushed us.
From the ashes of the Paris Commune arose the Basilica Sacré Coeur, a space that, for David Harvey, ‘became a symbol of the Commune’s crimes against the church and were to fertilise the soil from which the energy to build Sacré Coeur was to spring’.
Equally, for Victor Serge in his memoirs, the Basilica Sacré Coeur is recognised as a space of force and constraint, sitting slothfully in a ‘monumentally bourgeois style’ looking down on the roofs of Paris to project a repressive space.
Out of a revolutionary process arises counterrevolutionary reaction and abuses, excesses, crimes and moments of reaction.
As Victor Serge reminds us, these forces are the product of human action.