Victor Serge: revolutionary and philosemite

Victor Serge, whose real name is Viktor Lvovitch Kibaltchitch, was born in Brussels in 1890. The man who would become a key figure in the European revolutionary mythology of the 20th century, grew up in the European libertarian milieu before joining Soviet Russia. Among the first denouncers of the abuses of Stalinism, he was deported to Siberia before being allowed to go into exile, first in Western Europe, then in Mexico. Mitchell Abidor returns to a little-known part of the career of the man who, during the war, wrote “The Extermination of the Jews of Warsaw”: that of his extreme attention – not tinged with ambiguity at times – to the specificity of the fate of the Jews.


Viktor Lvovitch Kibalchitch, known as Victor Serge


The Belgian-born writer and lifelong radical Victor Serge (1890-1947), was a figure who long languished in obscurity. But he has, over the last couple of decades, come to stand in the eyes of many for political probity in a time of cowardice and falsehood. His political evolution, which began while he was still a teenager in Brussels, saw him shift from socialist to individualist anarchist to revolutionary syndicalist to Bolshevik to Trotskyist to independent anti-Stalinist socialist. These changes demonstrated his recognition that no set ideology could meet changing circumstances, that it was necessary for ideas to evolve as circumstances do. He paid dearly for his beliefs, living in almost constant exile, stateless, and imprisoned twice in France and, later, to time in a Soviet “isolator”. He faced political isolation and poverty, and at the end of his life, in his final exile in Mexico, the soles of the shoes he was wearing when he died of a heart attack in a Mexico City taxi were worn through. 

Serge, refusing any form of orthodoxy after his Bolshevik period, wrote on the margins of politics and history, part of no country and no movement. Because of this independence and clear-sightedness, by the beginning of the twenty-first century he had gained the recognition he lacked in his lifetime. In 2004 his consecration as a titan was complete, when Susan Sontag wrote a brilliant overview of his career, saying of him that “I can’t think of anyone else who has written about the revolutionary movement ion this century with Serge’s combination of moral insight and intellectual richness.”

Serge stood out from other leftists for his openness to ideas that fell outside Marxism, while always claiming to remain within the socialist tradition. Victim of a vicious campaign carried out by the Communists because of his opposition to Stalin, he never surrendered to the anti-communism of an Arthur Koestler, insisting on carrying out what he called his twin duties: defending the revolution from its enemies within and without. He read widely and was a friend or correspondent of figures as disparate as André Gide, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Benjamin Fondane. Firmly atheist, he was nevertheless an admirer of Emmanuel Mounier and spoke highly of his Catholic leftist philosophy of Personalism. 

An overlooked example of Serge’s uniqueness was his treatment of Jewish matters. Unlike much of the left, which condemned antisemitism but showed little interest in Jews as such, Serge – whose second of three wives was Jewish – was an open and unapologetic philo-semite. He actually went further than mere love and admiration for the Jews: for Serge the Jews were a people greater than most. Part of a left that was stained with the antisemitism of Marx, Proudhon, Blanqui, and Bakunin, among others, Serge never soiled himself with that sin.

The Jews were not for Serge a race, but rather a nation. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that it is appropriate to use the term nation or people rather than race, because there are now no longer any pure races.”

And this nation without a state stood out from the bulk of humanity for the quality of its contributions. Though he recognized, on one hand that Jewry, was divided into Ashkenazim and Sephardim, he even so, viewed it as originally one: Speaking of the “great intellectual quality” [leur grande qualité intellectuelle] of the Jews, he wrote : “They are the only white people that has, like the Hindus and the Chinese, a tradition of civilization that goes back 4,000 years.”

For Serge, modern thought owed much that was great to the Jews, certain of them in particular: “If we consider the great thinkers of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, one is struck upon noting that the Jews have furnished incomparable figures whose influence was, and remains, immense.”citing Marx and Freud and Einstein, Trotsky, Levy-Bruhl,Zweig and Brandes.

Victor Serge, Wikimedia Commons
The fight against antisemitism

Though all paid lip service to it, few non-Jewish leftists of his time took antisemitism as seriously as Serge did, describing it in his notebooks as “the unpardonable thing. Though his writing on Jewish matters were not vast, they are of a remarkable intensity. In a letter to the editor of Les Humbles, a small left-wing journal he wrote for after his release from the Soviet Union in 1936, and which had published an article he considered antisemitic and too conciliatory toward the Nazis, said that “I combat antisemitism in as much as my feeble means allow me.” In 1938, wen antisemitic measures had already been in place for five years in Germany, Serge foresaw their logical conclusion. “Antisemitism in Germany is in the process of taking on the form of total war against an unarmed minority within the nation.”

In the fall of 1944, in answer to a questionnaire from the editor of a Jewish publication in Chile, Serge placed the fight against antisemitism at the forefront of the struggle before humanity: “In the struggle for the greatness and liberation of man, for a new humanism, the fight against antisemitism, conscious or not, will be long, difficult, constant and will constitute one of the most pressing duties.”

Serge wrote movingly of the lot of the Jews of Europe, refusing to obscure its specificity, as leftists did then and would do to a great extent after the war. Jewish suffering was beyond measure. “In its absurdity, in its insanity, the persecution of the Jews seems to me to testify, amidst this nightmare, to a regression of human feelings from thousands of years ago.” In an unpublished article on the fate of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto Serge asserted that “These crimes are new in history. The history of our civilization, though it has known horrific wars and countless atrocities, contains no examples of the total extermination of a defenseless population.”

And yet, there is no escaping the fact that however strong his sympathies for the Jews, however emotional his response to their persecution, however subtle his political ideas, Serge’s explanation for antisemitism remained a prisoner of the schemas of the most vulgar Marxism. Against all the facts, against all the daily indignities Jews suffered under the Tsar for decades, if not centuries, he wrote that “In practice it [antisemitism] arose in Russia during the revolution of 1905 as an expedient of monarchist reaction aimed at diverting the violent instincts of the ignorant and impoverished masses against a defenseless religious minority.”

In an otherwise brilliant analysis of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s antisemitic “pamphlets” he expanded on his economic analysis of Jew-hatred: “Antisemitism is, in the decadent state of the current regime of production, a sub-product of nationalism called on to dismantle the intelligence of the masses.” The exculpation of the people was a necessary element of Marxist analyses of antisemitism, even for Victor Serge, who went to far as to say it was the German people who should judge the crimes of their leaders at war’s end. He would be even clearer in his insistence on the economic roots of Antisemitsm: “The historic causes of the isolation and persecution of the Jews is, in most cases, simple to discern: they are purely economic”

Sympathy with accomodations

Kristallnacht was motivated by financial reasons, “It was a matter”, he wrote, “as in the Middle Ages, of despoiling a category of the population”. To be sure, the Nazis soaked and expropriated the wealth of the Jewish community of Germany, as it would that of the other countries it conquered. It is also true that throughout history governments and individuals have enriched themselves by extorting funds from Jews during antisemitic waves. But antisemitism in general, and a fortiori a murderous one like that of Hitler’s Germany, is far more than a way to divert the “masses” and their native “anticapitalism” from their true enemies (i.e., the bourgeoisie) or a means of obtaining posts formerly occupied by Jews. Serge recognized the horror of Nazi policies and described them clearly; but millions of deaths – and Serge wrote of this during the war’s end – were not carried out for economic reasons.

Serge wrote most often of poor Jews as the main victims of antisemites, though if spoliations there were under the Nazis, it was wealthy Jews who were their primary victims. Serge’s notebooks are full of proof that his sympathy for the fate of Europe’s Jews was mitigated when dealing with the well-to- do. 

He had nothing but disdain for the wealthy Jews on the ship that took him from France in 1941. to his final exile in Mexico. On March 31, 1941 he wrote, describing the wealthy Jews on board ship, who he called derogatorily “Wirtshaftsemigranten” – economic emigrants: “Jews with money. They rent the crew’s cabins, stuff themselves, pal around with the personnel, frequent only each other, mistrust everyone, play cards, read.  Parochialism. We call this spot the Champs Elysees.”

Rich Jewish exiles in Mexico are described as egotists, and Serge resorts to inflammatory language when referring to them: “Ask them to give a fifth of their fortune to save poor Jews and they look at you like you’re a dangerous madman. The best give a hundred pesos twice a years. Rodents.”

Serge different levels of sympathy for exiles caried over to his relations with other political exiles in Mexico. His 1944 dispute with the exiled radical Jewish writer Jean Malaquais is further evidence of the ugly side to Serge, one he shared with the bulk of political exiles from Hitlerite Europe. 

Wladimir Jan Pavel Malacki, also known as Jean Malaquais, Wikipedia Commons

Serge’s dispute with Malaquais in Mexico City was an extraordinarily unpleasant one. Serge and Malaquais , who Serge had once described “close, in his character and vitality, to the great Jews.”, engaged in a physical scuffle after a meeting of the independent  socialist circle of which they were both members. Malaquais had accused Serge, who by this point doubted that revolution was on the agenda in Europe, of being in essence a Tory, a supporter of the British Conservatives. After their physical confrontation the dispute dragged on, with Serge demanding that Malaquais be censured by the leadership of the circle. In the dozens of pages of documents at the International Institute for Social History on the dispute, Serge wonders why his comrades were even taking Malaquais seriously. He dismissed his adversary as a negligible individual, one he could “ignore,” because “M. Malaquais belongs to no socialist organization and is active in any serious way. He is a Jewish refugee rather than a political refugee

The combination of Serge’s acute perceptions of the reality of Jewish suffering with a failure to understand its sources and his disdain for wealthy Jews in some ways left Serge in the same position as most leftists, with no solution to the problem of antisemitism save that of socialist revolution. In this way Serge demonstrates the inadequacy of any Marxist reading of the phenomenon of Jew-hatred, which will only be solved when the socialist millennium arrives.  But his forthright stand in defense of Jews, his insistence on the centrality of the fight against antisemitism, his recognition that the persecution of the Jews was something more horrific and targeted than other forms of Nazi oppression distinguish him from the overwhelming mass of leftists of his time.

Mitchell Abidor

Mitchell Abidor est un écrivain, traducteur et historien né à Brooklyn. Il a publié plus d’une douzaine de livres et ses articles sont parus dans le New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books et de nombreuses autres publications.

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