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Victor Serge

Ian Birchall

From: The October 2004 Commemoration

I first encountered Peter Sedgwick’s writings in 1959, in Clarion, the Labour Students’ journal, and in a very scruffy, obscure publication called Socialist Review. Partly Because his name was on the Editorial Board I subscribed to a new journal called International Socialism; one of the more fateful decisions of my life.

Peter opened up a whole new perspective on the history of the socialist movement. He wrote with enormous scholarship and authority. Though he was less than five years older than me, he seemed to embody a whole tradition. I suppose I realised he hadn’t actually been at Kronstadt, but it felt as if he had.

Above all he introduced a whole generation of us to Victor Serge. In the 1960s Serge was virtually unknown - neither the Cold War right, nor the Stalinists, nor even the orthodox Trotskyists, had any time for him; he didn’t fit their preconceived patterns. Only the efforts of Peter, Richard Greeman and a few others prevented him disappearing for ever.

When his translation of the Memoirs appeared in 1963, Peter wrote a piece for International Socialism on ‘Victor Serge and Socialism’. Mike Kidron commented: ‘It’s not a portrait of Serge, it’s a portrait of Sedge’. There was some truth in this. Peter wrote in this article: ‘there is no such ideology as Serge-ism and there are no Serge-ites’. It’s true of both Peter and Serge. There was no doctrine that could be embodied in an organisation, simply a powerful critical intelligence always willing to challenge assumptions and offer alternative perspectives. I debated in print with Peter on three occasions. I still think I was largely right - but he made me work for it. In arguing with Peter you couldn’t get away with debating tricks or a quote from Lenin. Peter knew three quotes from Lenin - and the context.

Another reason why Peter was attracted by Serge was his complex trajectory from anarchism to Marxism. As Peter noted in 1968:Anarchy is back with us again. We must greet and welcome anarchy. It is not the sword of revolution, only its herald. But a herald performs a genuine service.’

In the early Comintern Serge opposed Zinoviev and Paul Levi who thought the anarchists could be dismissed by a few clichés about the revolutionary party, and backed Lenin and Trotsky who wanted dialogue with the anarchists. Peter was fascinated with the blurred area between Marxism and anarchism, and used both traditions to illuminate each other.

In one of his last articles, on Daniel Guérin, Peter described him as a mediator between two traditions. ‘As a mediator between libertarian socialism and ‘authoritarian’ Bolshevism, as a spokesperson for anarchism among Marxists and for Marxists among the anarchisants he has been the honest broker among ideologies.’ Again Peter was writing about himself as much as about Guérin.

This is why Peter’s work is still so relevant. Those debates between Marxism and anarchism, debates about authority and exploitation, about the nature of the state, about the form of revolutionary organisation, are reappearing, in somewhat different language, in the anti-capitalist movement since Seattle 1999.

The Memoirs were important for a whole generation of us. In her recent book on Serge, Suzi Weissman tells how she was given the Memoirs to read on a train journey from Glasgow to London. ‘The six-hour, bumpy journey passed in a moment and when I arrived I simply moved from the bench on the train to a bench in the station, where I sat until I finished the book’. Now they are only available at a price that makes them inaccessible to the very people who should be reading them. Moreover, because of some unimaginable stinginess on the part of Oxford University Press, Peter had to cut the text of the Memoirs by about one eighth. The best possible memorial to Peter, and to the Victor Serge he so admired, would be to make the full text of the Memoirs widely available in English.