The Case of Comrade Serge

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Thu Feb 14 12:37:04 MST 2002

Los Angeles Times
Sunday, February 10, 2002

The Case of Comrade Serge
VICTOR SERGE: The Course Is Set on Hope, By Susan Weissman, Verso: 320 pp.,


     Biography has many tasks, the most salient of which is obviously the
re-creation of a human personality for subsequent generations. Sometimes,
this duty takes the form of a rescue operation, by which the record of an
important life is prevented from toppling into oblivion. And sometimes, too,
it is necessary to redeem a reputation from calumny. At the point where this
is done properly, biography may shade into history and alter the way in
which we view an epoch. Susan Weissman's study of Victor Serge meets all the
above conditions.
     The life of her subject was a near microcosm of the fate of the
revolutionary left in the 20th century. Born to a family of Russian
revolutionary exiles, Serge was brought up in Belgium--the Belgium of King
Leopold's Congo and the Belgium that furnished the pretext for World War I.
His early life was that of an outsider; almost a bandit, in the louche
anarchistic milieu that flourished after the fin de siecle. But the events
of October 1917 caused him to mutate from rebel to revolutionary. He made
his way back to the country of his forebears and hoped to see it transformed
into the first socialist workers' republic.
     You might think that the rest of the story--disillusionment followed by
deportation, imprisonment, persecution, exile and death--more or less wrote
itself. But you would be mistaken. Not only did Serge put up a fight against
Stalin every step of the way, he also committed almost all of his thoughts
and experiences to paper (often at vast risk to himself), and much of this
imperishable trove has survived. The archive includes some essential
personal reminiscences and glimpses of real people and real events. It also
includes a novel--"The Case of Comrade Tulayev"--which many think comparable
to the work of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler as a fictional depiction of
the moral nightmare of Stalinism and which has the additional distinction of
having been written by a survivor of same. Serge also produced--and
preserved in memory after the original pages had been destroyed by
police--almost the only volume of gulag verse that has come down to us.
     Weissman has set herself three objectives: to bring Serge to life; to
honor the struggle of the left opposition, whose bravery in the face of
Stalinism has received insufficient credit from historians; and to show
that, when Serge differed from the left opposition, he was generally
correct. This is an amazingly intricate project, and it involves her in
writing against most of the preconceptions of the left as well as of the


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