'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, November 14, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Unforgiving Years 

Victor Serge was a revolutionary who never strayed from his liberatory instincts. Born in Brussels to exiled anti-Czarist parents, he watched his younger brother waste away as his family lived in poverty. He moved to Paris as a young adult, and participated in the final spasm of anarchism within France before World War I. In 1917, he was among those in Barcelona that carried out the first failed Spanish Revolution. As you might expect, he made his way to Petrograd to align himself with the Bolsheviks in January 1919.

Serge opposed the Bolshevik turn to autocracy from its inception. During the 1920s, he sought to create a coalition that would effectively resist the onset of Stalinism. He displayed a remarkable bravery in doing so, continuing to speak out at mass meetings of workers despite threats of violence. After being jailed on a number of occasions, he was exiled to France in 1936, making his way to Mexico in 1941, where he died six years later. His biography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, relates these experiences in rich detail, and, perhaps, I may get around to reviewing it some day.

Today, however, I am more interested in examining his great novel, Unforgiving Years, written in 1946, published in France in 1971 and translated into English in 2007. If not for the anti-Stalinism of the French New Left, it is doubtful that the book would have ever been published as Communists and liberals collaborated in its suppression. If not for the efforts of the translator, Richard Greeman, it would have probably never been available in English. Serge has a reputation as someone who placed politics before art, which is undoubtedly true, but Unforgiving Years is the equivalent of a deceased relative's diary accidentally discovered in a musty crate in the attic. Like such a diary, the narrative cuts through our preconceived notions of the past.

Unforgiving Years relates the collapse of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left just before World War II, the horrors of that war its brave adherents anticipated and their ultimate demise upon the defeat of the Nazis. Serge tells this melancholy story episodically: Paris before the war, where he introduces us to the two protagonists, Sacha (or "D") and, briefly, Daria, his protege, as Sacha, a brilliant Comintern operative, renounces Stalinism and seeks to depart with his lover, Nadine, for the Americas as they leave Daria behind, Leningrad during the siege where Daria participates in the heroic, yet bittersweet, defense of the city, Berlin, just before the fall of the Reich, where Daria, as well as one of Sacha's undercover French Stalinist operatives, Alain, have organized the underground resistance against the Nazis, and, finally, Mexico, where Daria reunites with Sacha.

Serge draws upon his personal experience with all four locales to vividly dramatize the personal and political struggles of his protagonists. He subtlely portrays Paris as immersed in a self-satisfied absorption of the delights of bourgeois life, even as Sacha and his wife flee for their lives, fearful of being assassinated by Stalinist agents for their betrayal. The overall effect is one of a political noirism, with the subsequent fall of France in 1940 a foregone conclusion. But the most riveting aspects of this segment are Sacha's recollections of his involvement in the Bolshevik revolution. They convey an immediacy and intensity that one rarely encounters in any work that purports to emotionally expose the reality of past history.

For example:

If I passed my memories in review, scant happiness was there, no serenity, much harshness, steely exhaltation, labor, hunger, filth, danger, and moments torn as if slashed by knives; a host of cherished dead whose faces memory averts (because they were often worth more than I was), the woman of a night or of a season, the one I thought I loved who betrayed me while I was in prison, and the one who was faithful but died of typhus during a winter of famine, and I arrived too late to see her again, having crossed three hundred miles of snow; there was nothing left for me to keep of her, the neighbors had filched the sheets from the deathbed, the bed boards, the four books we owned, the toothbrush. I called together the taciturn bearded men, the women who faces were stiff with guilt, the nailbiting children. "Citizens!" I said. "You have stolen nothing from us. You have taken what is yours. The belongings of the dead are for the living, and for the poorest first. And we are scarely the living! We live for the men of the future . . ." I was a bad speaker in those days. Some of them came up and shook my hand, saying, "Thanks Citizen, for your kind words, your human words. What do you want for us to give back?" I cried: "NOTHING!"

Similarly, Sacha recalls a subsequent encounter with Daria after he had first met her in 1919:

In the year 1922, I ran into her in Feodossia, tending to her lungs which she said were "as wrecked as the floors of that factory, do you remember?" and striving to keep a glimmer of life going in the body of a scrawny baby girl, ten months old, who was soon to die. Daria was a director of schools, "no paper, no books, twice the children, half the teachers" and those at their wits' end. Hunger: two successive waves of terror. Premature aging had spoiled the childish charm of her youthful looks; her nose was pinched, her lips drained of color; her mouth twisted slightly out of line. I found her obtuse, almost stupid, with an edge of hysteria, one cool night on a pebbly strand bewitched by the most sparkling stars, when I tried to dispel the bitterness I perceived in her by trying to defend the Party's behavior . . . . Forehead banded by a black lace scarf, hands on knees, squatting on her heels like a sulky tomboy, Daria answered me curtly, clipping her phrases as she would have coldly ripped up the beliefs without which we could not have lived: "Spare me the theoretical considerations. And the lofty quotations out of books! I've seen the massacres, theirs and ours. Them, they're made for that, the rubbish of history, the debased humanity of drunken officers . . . But us, if it's no different, then it's a betrayal. We've betrayed plenty, I can tell you. See that rock over there? Officers trussed together, driven with sabers to the edge of the cliff. I saw men falling in bunches like big crabs . . . There are two many psychopaths on our side . . . Our side? What do I have in common with them? And you? Don't answer. What do they have in common in socialism? Keep your mouth shut, or I'll leave."

I kept my mouth closed. Then she let me put an arm around her shoulders. I felt her thinness, I wanted to squeeze her to me in a rush of affection. I only wanted to make her warmer, she froze. "Leave off, I'm not a woman anymore." "A great big child is what you are and always have been, Daria," I told her, "a wonderful child" . . . She shoved me so violently, I almost lost my balance. "Be a man, then. And keep your platitudes for a more appropriate time." We remained good friends.

Serge reportedly wrote quickly, on the run as it were, believing that he did not have the time required to polish it because there was too much to do, too many books and articles to be written in defense of the working class against the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism, and, yet, you would never know it unless you were told. As proven by the foregoing passages which are consistent with the quality of the novel as a whole, Serge was an extraordinarily gifted prose stylist, capable of fusing abstract concepts, naturalism and personal intimacy within an engaging narrative. Through it all resides a compassionate humanism with which the reader never loses contact.

Such compassion is the touchstone of the remaining three interludes. In the first one, Daria, after being exiled to Central Asia because of her connection to Sacha, is called to Leningrad to assist in the defense of the besieged city. Here, Serge interweaves several paradoxical themes about the nature of the resistance. Most importantly, he respects it as the collective spontaneous response of a people facing the threat of extinction, but one that required that hierarchical leadership of the Party to prevail. It is this dependence to the point of accepting the continuance of the Party's power to set the boundaries of personal relationships, as symbolized by a Party decision to send away Daria's lover without telling her where he had been sent and what was likely to happen to him, that rendered any prospect of immediate reform after the war implausible.

To his credit, Serge does not romanticize this struggle, even as he romanticizes its participants. It was one of his gifts that he could convey an objective sense of history while personalizing those who shaped it. Drawing upon his memories of Petrograd in 1919 and 1920, when the impoverished city nearly fell to the Whites, he highlights the perils and the privations, and, of course, the extent to which the Party leadership exempted themselves from them, while describing the resistance as the accumulation of individual acts of heroism, often of the most mundane kind, sometimes bordering on irrationality and incomprehension. Victory is only evident through the rear view mirror, as are the acts that achieved it.

In the second one situated in Berlin just before the collapse of the Reich, Serge does something quite remarkable: he acknowledges the brutalities perpetrated by Germans even as he empathizes with the physical and psychological destruction of their society. In the 1920s, he had worked inside Germany with the Comintern to clandestinely organize the German working class to overthrow the Weimar Republic. He reveals his emotional attachment to it through several well developed, sympathetic characters, making him possibly the first revisionist who rejected the collective condemnation of the Germans people for the atrocities of the Reich. Coming from a revolutionary leftist associated with countries and peoples victimized by the Nazis, such a perspective comes across as much more sincere and compassionate than its subsequent espousal by right wing Germans seeking to resuscitate a dormant German nationalism.

But there is a more specific reason for it beyond the credibility of the speaker. Serge feminizes the destruction of the German working class in the character of Brigitte, a young woman whose husband was killed on the Eastern Front because, as she is informed by one of his returning friends, his fellow soldiers considered him insufficiently desensitized to the need to undertake savage measures against the populace. Having lost her husband as she experiences the destruction of her community by Allied bombers, she, like everyone around her, lacks the capacity to address anything other than her willingness to live.

Through Brigitte and those around her in the Alstadt district, Serge mourns the burial of the German working class that he and the Bolsheviks had hoped would lead the revolution in Europe. With the Russians remaining under the control of Stalin, and the German proletariat having immolated itself through its involvement, whether passively or enthusiastically, with the Nazis, the period of revolutionary struggle that had commenced with the Bolshevik Revolution was now at an end. Serge acknowledges it through the decision of Alain, now an undercover Communist operative working with Daria in Alstadt, to abandon political action for art upon the arrival of the Americans.

Finally, in the last segment, straightforwardly entitled, Journey's End, Daria travels to Mexico to reunite with Sacha and Nadine. Sacha lives on a remote rural estate in San Blas, the revolutionary now reduced to benevolent plantation owner. As he explains to a disoriented Daria upon their reunion:

I work my peons and pay them well; they steal from me well, too, but within reason; they're aware that I know about it, but not that I judge them to be in the right. If I paid them any more, they'd lose motivation and the local powers would brand me a public menance.

Even a European revolutionary like Sacha, it seems, slips into the role of a paternal father figure in relation to the indigenous populace with ease, without much introspection. As you might have guessed, this is Mexico as seen through the eyes of involuntary exiles. No longer on the cutting edge of history, no longer identified with the purported proletarian agents of transformation, Sacha, Nadine and Daria live a life most analoguous to the aristocracy of the Spanish latifundia. None of them appear to recognize the revolutionary potential of Central America that would manifest itself within the next ten years, as Sacha immerses himself in the geology and the flora of his adopted home.

Upon reading Unforgiving Years in 2008, one recognizes a new theme that has engrafted itself upon the novel. Faced with the brutalities of Stalinism, the anti-Stalinist left, the one that survived Khrushchev's secret speech and the collapse of state socialism in the USSR, increasingly abandoned violence and coercion to acheive its political ends. By the end of the novel, it is evident that Sacha, Daria and Alain no longer possess the will to act violently to bring about the revolution. Pacifism is now the order of the day for their real life descendants. King and Gandhi have replaced figures like Lenin, Trotsky and, to a lesser extent, anarchists like Durruti, as the motivational icons of the left.

It is a substitution that is universally celebrated across the political spectrum. It is unremarked, however, that it is also one that has, with the exception of the emergence of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, worked to the great benefit of capitalism. Since the time of the novel, capitalism has expanded its reach from being regional to nearly global in scope. While the left has generally rejected violence as a means to attain power, capitalists have used it without hesitation. By the time of the Bush presidency, the US, as the country with the express mission of imposing a global capitalist order, had implemented express policies of first strike military action against any country or group that it perceived as either a military or economic threat.

Pacifism was definitely not an effective means of resistance, as the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza, among others, can explain. It is an inescapable fact that violent non-leftist movements associated with Political Islam have been more effective at restraining the US than non-violent leftist ones. The left has evolved, therefore, into something akin to a secular version of Catholicism. If we nurture non-violence within ourselves, then, someday, we, in the sense of the human race, will someday march into the garden of socialism.

But the left lost more than just the willingness to act violently as a consequence of the grosteque extremes of Stalinism. It also lost the ideological justification for it, a justification that would render it acceptable to many people as a form of self-defense and empowerment. Within the American context, Alexander Berkman recognized that the violence of the state retained a legitimacy that the violence of the individual and non-state groups did not. He never discovered a way out of this dilemma. To this day, the left remains enshackled by it, and until it finds a way to resolve it, capitalist domination through nation states is likely to persist.

Labels: , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?