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Victor Serge

Richard Greeman

Read out at the October 2004 Commemoration
Richard Greeman lives in France

I am sorry not to be present in person here among Peter’s children, friends and admirers, but I am very happy that Michelle and Paul have taken the initiative to bring us together to put together the different pieces of his rich, productive, intensely lived and tragically interrupted life.

As far as his work on Victor Serge is concerned, Peter was not only the first person anywhere to take a serious look at this remarkable writer and revolutionary, he also made some remarkable archival discoveries and defined most of the terms in which we still talk about Serge today.

Peter’s wonderful translation of Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary – stupidly mutilated by the ignoranti at Oxford University Press – was a revelation to the New Left that was then developing. It gave us roots and a usable past from which we could begin to imagine that another world was possible. It deserves to be restored to its proper length and re-published for the benefit of today’s rising radical generation.

Peter’s brief essay on ‘Victor Serge and Socialism’ published in International Socialism around 1963 was seminal. What touched me most as a future Serge biographer was Peter’s way of bringing out the creatural side of Serge. I remember being struck at the time by Peter’s comment about the corpulence of the Belgian workers Serge encountered in Brussels, where he landed after his escape from capivity in Stalin’s Russia in 1936. "Fat Belgians" meant that no new revolution was to be expected, despite the Depression and the great strike-waves that soon engulfed France. I also remember how Peter wrote about the thin cheap paper and worn-out typewriter ribbons with which Serge wrote his books – thus indicated Serge’s ‘place’ in the world of letters. Peter’s essay encouraged me in my own belief that the creatural insights of a writer like Serge might tell us as much, or perhaps more about the dialectics of society than abstractions like ‘degenerated workers’ state,’ ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ or even ‘state-capitalism’ (which one of Serge’s characters imagines as ‘a huge tank, crushing everything.’)

It was also Peter the archive hunter who settled the question of Trotsky’s sorry quarrel with Serge, his faithful supporter, translator and admirer. Somewhere, Peter discovered the galley sheets of an unpublished article entitled ‘Reply to Trotksy’ which Serge had prepared for La Révolution proletarienne. Translated into English by Peter, it was published for the first time in ‘Peace News’ under the confusing title ‘Secrecy and Revolution.’ From it, we learn that Trotsky’s intemporate attacks on Serge were totally unjustified and probably based on calumnies suggested by a Stalinist agent-provocateur in Trotsky’s entourage.

Hunting archives in Spain, Peter made another important discovery in the library of an old anarchist in some provincial town in Catalonia. This was Serge’s "Critical Essay on Nietzsche" which had been translated into Spanish and serialised in an anarcho-syndicalist journal in 1917. The find was all the more remarkable, since possession of such a journal had been a criminal act in Spain for decades under Franco’s dictatorship when Peter, following a lead, came across its owner. In this essay, Serge, newly reborn after five years of torture in a French penitentiary, comes to terms with the authoritarianism of the philosopher who had presided over his anarcho-individualist youth. Indeed, Serge once summed up his prison ordeal (the first of many) with Nietzsche’s aphorism: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ We also know that Nietzsche was still among Serge’s bedside books in Mexico in the 1940’s.

Peter’s preoccupation with Serge’s Nietzschean side nourished his final and most troubling essay in which he describes Serge as an ‘Unhappy Elitist,’ who was torn between his libertarian principles and his attraction to the energy, confidence and authority of the Bolshevik ‘superman.’ Today, this ambivalence in Serge seems to me a natural and essential part of his mentality, flowing as it does from the double heritage of the Russian revolutionary intelligentia as an educated elite in a backward land prepared to sacrifice itself in order to lead the people to a better world. But at the time, I, like Peter, tended unconsciously to idolize Serge to an extent, and both of us were a bit shaken at the thought that our libertarian idol had feet of elitist clay.

This disillusionment over Serge came to Peter at a time when many other questions were troubling him, and I had the feeling that in the end it helped push him over the edge of dispair. I admit that at that time, just before Peter left us, I selfishly preserved my own mental equilibrium by a simple process of denial. I refused to deal with the implications of Peter’s argument and put his little essay on Serge on the shelf for a decade or so. Today, I can only admire – with a tinge of horror – Peter’s unflinching intellectual courage and willingness to follow every discovery and line of reasoning to their logical conclusion.