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Twice Met: Serge & Sedgwick

David Widgery

This article is from the Victor Serge Centenary Group Newsletter.
Published in January 1991.

The contemorary admirers of Victor Serge owe much to another revolutionary socialist, polemicist and self-taught historian, Peter Sedgwick, who died in a still unexplained drowning incident in Yorkshire in 1983.

Peter, whose edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionary was published by OUP in 1963, was not merely a translator but a partisan of Serge’s undogmatic Marxism. and a writer of great wit, compassion and political precision.

The 1963 publication of Memoirs (now in its fourth paperback edition) was to have a definite political impact on the re-emerging British revolutionary left, one of the many impetuses to the eruptions of 1968. This, principally because of the inspiring and intransigent trajectory of Serge's remarkable life at a time when, despite ’56, the orthodoxies of Stalinism were still widely accepted on the left.

But it was also because of the special enthusiasm which Peter contributed to recovering the story of Serge, and thus a whole generation which had been written out of socialist history.

Peter was a classicist by training, but having been introduced by Pierre Marteau, the French surrealist, to the 1951 Editiens du Seuil in Oxford in 1958, he devoted himself to the preparation of an English edition, teaching himself French to do so.

He pursued the work, including the remarkably erudite footnotes, while working as a psychology demonstrator at Liverpool University and probably completed it after he was sacked from the university for his political activity.

As is well known, Serge was keen to have an English edition and had sent George Orwell a manuscript. And it was Isaac Deutscher (whose biography of Trotsky was the only easily accessible account of the period from an anti-Stalinist perspective) who supported Sedgwick’s proposal to OUP – of all people – to make his translation.

Early extracts from the work were published in the journal International Socialism in 1963, and Peter went on to translate and edit the magisterial Year One of the Russian Revolution for Allen Lane in 1972. Although Serge never completely went out of intellectual circulation (Destiny of a Revolution in the Shachtman translation was published in London in 1937 and he contributed to the famous New International symposium on Kronstadt alongside Rocker,Goldman and Trosky), the British anti-Stalinist left was much less familiar with him than the French.

Indeed, it is reasonable to speculate that when Satre saluted Serge’s intransigence in the famous passage of the 1956 declaration, The Hungarian Tragedy, a good many British readers would have scratched their heads.

It was certainly due to Peter’s enthusiasm that the early Seventies saw a small renaissance of Serge publications in Britain including the Penguin edition of Richard Greeman’s translations of the novels.

But more importantly, the books fed into the political mood of the time. The politics of Serge and Sedgwick were of Bolshevism at its most libertarian, and Marxism at its most warmhearted and witty. Peter, whose most important book was the 1982 Psychopolitics – a study of theories of mental health – was a self-taught historian but had tremendous feeling for the material and made an early friendship with Serge’s son, Vlady.

When Peter died he was working on the Serge-Trotsky correspondence. He dressed like a Basque beatnik, wrote footnotes to his own footnotes, typed (like Serge) in single, uncorrected spacing on flimsy paper, collected tins of mulligatawny ...

Sedgwick was one of the few New Left who stayed moving leftwards in the Sixties, serving as an active and valued member of the International Socialists until his resignation in 1977. It is sad that Sedgwick has not lived to witness the first steps in the rehabilitation and rediscovery in Eastern Europe of a fellow writer and revolutionary of world stature.

The words of Andre Giacommetti, in his review of the 1963 edition of Memoirs in the journal International Socialism, could apply to both translator and subject: “He had qualities of which there is a great dearth on the radical left of today; compassion, sanity, a sense of humour, optimism. He did not move like an enemy agent in the midst of ordinary humanity: to him to be a revolutionary meant to participate in every aspect of the life of ordinary people, and he never allowed himself to forget this is where socialism must come from if it is to come at all”.