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The Conscience of a Revolutionary: On Victor Serge


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At the Bookforum website, Alex Press reviews Notebooks: 1936-1947 by the unstinting and cosmopolitan revolutionary Victor Serge. Largely unpublished during his lifetime because he refused to follow the political winds, Serge’s impressive oeuvre includes novels, political essays, and diaries, much of which has been published in English by New York Review Books in recent years. As Press writes, the Notebooks, which date from the end of Serge’s life while he was in exile in Mexico, show a fierce anti-Stalinist and clear-eyed thinker who refused to give up on the revolutionary project of Marxism, despite all the corruptions and betrayals it had suffered. Check out an excerpt from the review below.

By contrast, Serge is all commitment, though of a particular type. He is committed to revolution, of course (Claude Lévi-Strauss, on the boat from France to Mexico with Serge, calls him an “incorrigible Marxist”). But underlying this militancy is a commitment to the individual seen as a collective hero and the product of generations of struggle. “In Serge’s world,” his longtime translator Peter Sedgwick once wrote, “politics is composed not of statements but of persons.” If people, not just revolutions, are centuries in the making, bearing the traces of prior social relations, of political domination and uprisings, it’s important to chronicle them as flesh and blood. Serge’s writing—pamphleteering, poetry and novels, histories, an invaluable memoir—composed as he ranged from one revolution to the next, unsettled enough to earn the name “conscience of the revolution,” is defined by this commitment. An awkward fit within the strictures of Bolshevik discipline, it’s this principle that makes Serge’s worlds so full, a record of the masses of militants he’d known.

Image of Victor Serge via Spiked.