Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary
I have just finished reading Victor Serge’s “memoir” (New York Review Books, 2012; written in 1941-1943; originally published in 1951). Perhaps I will have more of my own thoughts about it to record in the coming days. But right now, I just want to offer three fragments, the relevance of each of them seems obvious to me, not requiring any immediate commentary or interpretation on my part.
Its opening paragraph:
Even before I emerged from childhood, I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling that was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape, in which there was nothing for it but to fight for an impossible cause. I felt repugnance, mingled with wrath and indignation, towards people whom I saw settled comfortably in this world. How could they not be conscious of their captivity, of their unrighteousness? (3)
Many years and pages later, Serge reflects on the smear campaigns of the 1930s, highlighted by the Moscow Trials of 36-37, the destruction of the POUM in Spain by the Communists, and the Nazis’ vilification of the Jews:
This uninterrupted avalanche of delirious outpourings in the papers, the radio, at meetings, even in books, were on precisely the same level of psychological appeal as the Nazi agitation against the “Judeo-Masonic plutocracy, Marxism, Bolshevism,” and, occasionally, “the Jesuits”! We are witnessing the birth of collective psychoses similar to those of the Middle Age, and the creation of a technique for stifling critical thought, so laboriously acquired by the modern mind. Somewhere in Mein Kampf there are twenty exquisitely cynical lines on the usefulness of slander accompanied by violence. The new totalitarian methods for dominating the mind of the masses incorporate the devices of mainstream commercial advertising, amplified by violence and frenzied irrationality. The defiance of reason humiliates it and foreshadows its defeat.
The enormity and wildness of such accusations take the average person by surprise since he cannot imagine that he can be lied to on such a scale. The outrageous language intimidates him and in a way redeems the imposture: reeling under the shock, he is tempted to tell himself that there must, after all, be some justification for this madness, some justification of a higher order surpassing his own understanding. Success is possible for these techniques, it seems clear, only in epochs of confusion, and only if the brave minorities who embody the critical spirit are gagged or reduced to impotence through reasons of State and their own lack of material resources. . . .
Totalitarianism has no more dangerous an enemy than the spirit of criticism, which it bends every effort to exterminate. Any reasonable objection is bundled away with shouts, and the objector himself, if he persist, is bundled off on a stretcher to the mortuary. I have met my assailants face-to-face in public meetings, offering to answer any questions they raised. Instead, they always strove to drown my voice in storms of insults, delivered at the tops of their voices. . . . [Not] a single line [of my published work] has ever been contested, or a single argument adduced in reply—only abuse, denunciation, and threats. (393-94).
Serge’s faith in critical thought (a faith at least in its integrity if not in its efficacy) never left him, and is the source of his moving conclusion to his story of the failure of socialism in his lifetime, most particularly the descent of the 1917 Revolution into totalitarian despotism.
Early on, I learned from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in the conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.
A French essayist has said, “What is terrible when you seek the truth, is that you find it.” You find it, and then you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés. I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent. The evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of the intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit toward those same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs. In the struggle, it is the problem of combining the greatest possible practice efficiency with respect for the man in the enemy—in a word, a war without hate. . . .
Many times I have felt myself on the brink of a pessimistic conclusion as the function of thinking, of intelligence, in society. Continuously, over a quarter of a century, that is since the stabilization of the Russian Revolution just before 1920, I have found a general tendency to the suppression of percipient thinking. . . .
The relationships between error and true understanding are in any case too abstruse for anyone to regulate them by authority. Men have no choice but to make long detours through hypotheses, mistakes, and imaginative guesses, if they are to succeed in extricating assessments which are more exact, if partly provisional: for there are few cases of complete exactness. This means that freedom of thought seems to me, of all values, one of the most essential.
It is also one of the most contested. Everywhere and at every time. I have encountered fear of thought, repression of thought, an almost universal desire to escape or else stifle this ferment of restlessness. . . . .
The role of critical intelligence has seemed to me to be dangerous, and very nearly useless. This is the most pessimistic conclusion to which I have felt myself drawn. I am careful not to state it finally; I blame the feeling on my personal weakness, and I persist in regarding critical and percipient thought as an absolute necessity, as a categorical imperative which no one can evade without damage to himself and harm to society, and, besides, as the source of immense satisfactions. Better times will come, and perhaps soon. It is a matter of holding fast and keeping faith until then. (439-442)