Victor Serge: A Biography Paperback – 7 Jan 2013
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Careful, sympathetic and informed. --Adam Hochschild
Victor Serge was probably the greatest working-class writer of the twentieth century. As this superb study makes clear, he was also the Revolution's most ardent lover and indestructible conscience. --Mike Davis
About the Author
SUSAN WEISSMAN is a Professor of Politics at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California. She is an award-winning broadcast journalist, sits on the editorial boards of Critique and Against the Current, and is the editor of Victor Serge: Twenty Years After and The Ideas of Victor Serge.
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Top Customer Reviews
It's well written, quite readable and the politics and history are well explained. If someone was unaware of Victor Serge or new to his ideas or politics then I think that this would be a good introduction.
However, how many people are there out there who are interested in Serge and yet have not read anything by him and would, therefore, look to start with this book? Precious few I would have thought. And that's the problem. For readers already familiar with Serge's life story and politics, this biography provides little that is new or insightful or that could not be gleaned from Serge's own 'Memoirs of a Revolutionary'. For those familiar with his fictional, literary output there is hardly any discussion at all and for those unfamiliar with it, there is little to hook you in.
I feel that a better approach would have been to cut down on stuff that is in 'Memoirs', as most readers of this book will have already read that, concentrate more on assessments of Serge's literary output, his personal and family life and his political legacy and where it fits in the ongoing tradition of anti-Stalinist Marxism.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The author is devoted to her subject and clearly has devoted much time and attention to locating and reviewing the primary sources. She seems to be at the forefront of scholarship in this area. The book, however, was a bit disappointing. There was little or nothing about Serge's childhood and early years--when we first encounter him in the book it is 1919 and he is almost 30 (although there is a very little about his activities as an anarchist in France and Spain). I would have liked to know about his youth and young adulthood. Also, the narrative is not smooth. There were a few instances where (I think) virtually the same passage was repeated a few pages after it first appeared. Does anyone edit these books anymore? On a related point, the style is not elegant.
In addition, the author's perspective is clouded by her evident position as a true believer in socialism, albeit an opponent of tyranny a la Stalin. The result is that the author simply assumes that Serge's political and economic thought was sound and never stops to explain it, much less to subject it to any form of critical analysis.
That said, it is important that we read about Serge and the author has really done a commendable job. You will want to read more about him and by him when you have finished!
many of his works were written . He was also an unflagging supporter of the rights of the oppressed everywhere , first as an anarchist, then as a Bolshevik living in Russia where he was a close associate of the leaders of the Russian Revolution; then as a member of the opposition led by Leon Trotsky to Stalin's ever increasing corruption of the ideals which had produced the revolution in the first place. A loyal supporter and close friend to Leon Trotsky for most of the latter's life though their political views began to diverge in the last part of the 1930's, he was one of the many people, most today unnamed and unremembered who devoted their entire lives to the revolutionary movement, and who battled against the development of fascism. Their energies were also an attempt to alert t the world to the horrors which the victory off fascism could unleash. Tragically for mankind these warnings were unheeded,leading to the unprecedented carnage and slaughter of World War II. Serge was imprisoned just about everywhere and by everyone - first in his teens in Belgium, later in Russia by Stalin. His survival of the Gulag can only be attributed to his international prestige as a writer, whichled to the intervention of the European literary world to free him. Had for any reasons, these efforts been delayed, he surely would have been another one of Stalin's countless victims in the purges. . His journey ultimately forced him to flee Europe once the Nazi's had defeated France. From Nice, one of the many people aided by another hero who should be more recognized today, Varian Fray, Serge took him to Mexico, the country which had been the sole one willing to grant ayslum to Leon Trotsky but still not able to prevent his asassination in 1940..Serge died there, very poor, in 1947. The circumstances and causes of his death remain unsure....poisoning by the KGB cannot be excluded as a possibility. All this and much more can be learned from Ms Weissman's superbly written and extensive biography.
Victor Serge could have been an icon of revolutionary hope. He survived Trotsky by a number of years. His loyalty to the revolutionary projects of the early twentieth century was undiminished. He was a talented novelist, a passable poet and a competent political journalist.
But he was also one of those people, with Mandel, Pablo, Gunawardena, Heijenoort, Cannon, Ta Thu Thau, Shachtman and slightly earlier, Nin whose failure to find a political path forward after Trotsky in the face of WW2 proved, the end of non-Stalinist bolshevism, although it has had a long, murky deathbed scene ever since.
Weissman is a fan and that proves to be a problem. If, for example, you compare this book to Stephen Koch’s ‘Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals’ or to Rogovin’s 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror’ or David Shearer’s Industry, State and Society in Stalin’s Russia, it does not bear the comparison well in terms of the substance of its analysis. I pick these books as covering different aspects of matters directly relevant to Serge’s life. The contrast shows how little Weissman, although very well read in the older works, has to say.
For much of the book, Weissman cannot escape the dominating influence of Serge’s own autobiography. Too often she can do little but paraphrase it. She cannot engage with Broue’s judgement of Serge as a marginal figure (which she references – P. 88), because she cannot stand aside from Serge’s own judgements of the key issues.
For example, She sidesteps substantive discussion of the relationship between anarchism and Marxism in Serge’s development.
She also has no independent insight into the debate on the class nature of the USSR., a complex debate which raged during Serge’s lifetime and to which he tried, ineffectually, to contribute.
In a key letter of 27th July 1936 to Trotsky, Serge set out his own political ideas on party organisation and programme. This letter can be found in ‘The Serge-Trotsky Papers’ David Cotterill (ed). Weissman discusses this letter briefly on P.230. The consideration is too brief. This letter is the critical disagreement between the two men and offers the core insight into Serge’s political views. It is concerned with the same question Trotsky argued about at length in the articles compiled by Pathfinder Press in the book: The Crisis in the French Section. Yet we come away with little understanding of the debate.
Serge’s views deserve extended and careful analysi s. Had that been provided, Weissman would not then have been so dismissive about Serge’s later, famous letter to Andre Malraux in which he appeared to advocate a break with revolutionary party organisations and support Gaullism (P.182). The work of his last years on psychology and the required reform program for the Soviet Union would have made more sense than it can within Weissman’s hagiographic framework.
Weissman concludes that “in much of Serge’s work there is a fundamentally correct perception which is very suggestive without being sufficiently penetrating.” (P.274) This understates his political problems. His political writings are radically lacking in insight. This is common among Communist militants, but usually because they repeat party formulae. That is not true of Serge. Confusingly, his political writings are characterised by a strong degree of cultural autonomy from Trotsky as a hegemonic figure. This is attractive. His political writings lack strong insight despite that personal autonomy.
She is right to say that Serge was “grappling with new uncertainties” while others were “repeating old formulae” (P. 267). But she does not, even with fifty years of advantage on Serge, persuade us that he had anything at all to say that is of use today. I suspect that he might have, but she has not helped me elaborate this suspicion. She has the occasional interesting thing to say – for example to explain Serge’s interest in Burnham’s Managerial Revolution Theory, by connecting it to the influence of Hilferding on Serge (P. 268). But these moments are few and far between and never fully developed. Weissman is not a political thinker.
In truth, the mistake may well be to have written a political rather than a literary biography. Perhaps her other book on Serge's life as a work of art correct that - I have not read it. What is most interesting about Serge is his artistic achievement. His novels – and even his poems – amount to a spiritual affirmation of the existential phenomenology of the professional revolutionary. That is a rare species of art, threatened with extinction and usually – though not in Serge’s case - characterised by excessive imposture. Uniquely, Serge’s work and life exemplify this kind of art.
Its not great art, but good art. How can an artist express a revolutionary culture in the throes of defeat and despair ? Serge provides answers – answers which allow one to at least think about how and to what extent revolutionary organisations and cultures can appropriate the double-edged emotion of hope.
Other reviewers have commented on how badly edited this book is. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree. I can recommend the glossary of names which contains some good information on obscure figures not easily available otherwise.
Overall one wishes it was a better book. Serge deserves better. Nevertheless, it is better that is has been written than not written, better read than not read. Weissman has done Serge some small service and deserves that credit.
I never wrote one line in English about Serge...
My so-called texte 'On Anarchism', mentonned twice (!) on p. 282, is the mere translation of a lecture I gave in Brussels in the now far 1991...
These methods are a shame.