Victor Serge (1890–1947) was born to Russian anti-Tsarist exiles living in Brussels. As a young anarchist firebrand, he was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. In 1919, Serge joined the Bolsheviks. An outspoken critic of Stalin, he was expelled from the Party and arrested in 1929. Nonetheless, he managed to complete three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history (Year One of the Russian Revolution), published in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers such as André Gide and Romain Rolland. Hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947.
A Blaze in a Desert: Selected Poems
Author: Victor Serge • Editor and translator: James Brook • Afterword: Richard Greeman
Publisher: PM Press
Page count: 192 pages
Victor Serge (1890–1947) played many parts, as he recounted in his indelible Memoirs of a Revolutionary. The son of anti-czarist exiles in Brussels, Serge was a young anarchist in Paris; a syndicalist rebel in Barcelona; a Bolshevik in Petrograd; a Comintern agent in Central Europe; a comrade of Trotsky’s; a friend of writers like Andrei Bely, Boris Pilnyak, and André Breton; a prisoner of Stalin; a dissident Marxist in exile in Mexico . . .
Like Serge’s extraordinary novels, A Blaze in a Desert: Selected Poems bears witness to decades of revolutionary upheavals in Europe and the advent of totalitarian rule; many of the poems were written during the “immense shipwreck” of Stalin’s ascendancy. In poems datelined Petrograd, Orenburg, Paris, Marseille, the Caribbean, and Mexico, Serge composed elegies for the fallen—as well as prospective elegies for the living who, like him, endured prison, exile, and bitter disappointment in the revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century:
Night falls, the boat pulls in,
Exile relights its captive lamps
on the shore of time.
Throughout A Blaze in a Desert, Serge draws on the heritage of late- and post-Symbolist writers like Verhaeren, Rictus, Apollinaire, Blok, and Bely—themselves authors of messages of a more general resistance by the human spirit—to express the anguish of the failure of the Russian Revolution and to search out glimmers of hope in the ruins of the Second World War.
A Blaze in a Desert comprises Victor Serge’s sole published book of poetry, Resistance (1938), his unpublished manuscript Messages (1946), and his last poem, “Hands” (1947).
“Victor Serge was a major novelist, a revolutionary, and a historical witness, so it is perhaps not surprising that his poetry has been overlooked. But his poetry is for real. It is as grounded in specifics as you might expect from a fighter in some of the twentieth century’s great struggles, and as visionary as you’d hope from a disciple of Rimbaud and a friend to the Surrealists. Reading it is like coming upon an unsuspected corridor in the house of literature. James Brook’s lucid translation does it full justice.”
—Luc Sante, author of The Other Paris and translator of Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon
—Bill Marshall, author of Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent and Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity
“In these dark times, the poetry of Victor Serge illuminates the deep continuum of revolutionary history. As all great work, it shows the power of both resistance & acceptance. Serge is noted for his prose but his poetry is in many ways more moving. It inspires the reader to stay true to the revolutionary spirit and will in its compassion, defiance, and outrage.”
—David Meltzer, author of San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, When I Was a Poet, and Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook
“In this meticulously translated collection of Victor Serge’s poetry, emotion is the force that swells beneath the poet’s acute observations and his reasoning, sobriety, and restraint.”
—Summer Brenner, author of Nearly Nowhere and My Life in Clothes
“An international rebel with a cause, ever the champion of the downpressed and foreclosed, and of ‘all the broken young wings,’ Victor Serge—deported, exiled, hounded from country to country and continent to continent—inhabited a ‘planet without visas.’ But in A Blaze in a Desert Serge’s poetry, which witnessed the rise of modern totalitarian political ideologies and ideologues, comes home to Walt Whitman’s band of brothers. And James Brook’s erudite introduction guides us well through Serge’s engagement with poetry and poets and the enduring struggle for justice.”
—Gloria Frym, author of Mind over Matter and The True Patriot
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Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938
Author: Victor Serge • Edited by Mitchell Abidor • Foreword: Richard Greeman
Publisher: PM Press
Page count: 320
Anarchists Never Surrender provides a complete picture of Victor Serge's relationship to anarchism. The volume contains writings going back to his teenage years in Brussels, where he became influenced by the doctrine of individualist anarchism. At the heart of the anthology are key articles written soon after his arrival in Paris in 1909, when he became editor of the newspaper l'anarchie. In these articles Serge develops and debates his own radical thoughts, arguing the futility of mass action and embracing "illegalism." Serge's involvement with the notorious French group of anarchist armed robbers, the Bonnot Gang, landed him in prison for the first time in 1912. Anarchists Never Surrender includes both his prison correspondence with his anarchist comrade Émile Armand and articles written immediately after his release.
The book also includes several articles and letters written by Serge after he had left anarchism behind and joined the Russian Bolsheviks in 1919. Here Serge analyzed anarchism and the ways in which he hoped anarchism would leaven the harshness and dictatorial tendencies of Bolshevism. Included here are writings on anarchist theory and history, Bakunin, the Spanish revolution, and the Kronstadt uprising.
Anarchists Never Surrender anthologizes Victor Serge’s previously unavailable texts on anarchism and fleshes out the portrait of this brilliant writer and thinker, a man I.F. Stone called one of the “moral figures of our time."
“I can’t think of anyone else who has written about the revolutionary movement in this century with Serge’s combination of moral insight and intellectual richness.”
“To me he has seemed a model of the independent intellectual in Europe between the wars: leftist but not dogmatic, political yet deeply involved with issues of cultural life, and a novelist of very considerable powers.”
“I believe indeed that to rescue the humanist tradition of the last decades is of the utmost importance, and that Victor Serge is one of the outstanding personalities representing the socialist aspect of humanism.”
“Victor Serge died in exile and obscurity, apparently no more than a splinter of a splinter in the Marxist movement. But with the passage of the years, he looms up as one of the great moral figures of our time, an artist of such integrity and a revolutionary of such purity as to overshadow those who achieved fame and power. His failure was his success. I know of no participant in Russia’s revolution and Spain’s agonies who more deserves the attention of our concerned youth.”
“I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be very usefully compared. The essence of the man and his books is to be found in his attitude toward the truth. . . . His life and its choices demonstrate an exemplary truth to which he was prophetically sensitive and which we should now accept as axiomatic. Institutions can be defended by lies, revolutions never.”
—John Berger, New Society
Birth of Our Power
Author: Victor Serge • Introduction and Translation by Richard Greeman
Publisher: PM Press
Page count: 256
Birth of Our Power is an epic novel set in Spain, France, and Russia during the heady revolutionary years 1917–1919. Serge's tale begins in the spring of 1917, the third year of mass slaughter in the blood-and-rain-soaked trenches of World War I. When the flames of revolution suddenly erupt in Russia and Spain, Europe is "burning at both ends." Although the Spanish uprising eventually fizzles, in Russia the workers, peasants, and common soldiers are able to take power and hold it.
Serge’s “tale of two cities” is constructed from the opposition between Barcelona, the city “we” could not take, and Petrograd, the starving, beleaguered capital of the Russian Revolution besieged by counter-revolutionary Whites. Between the romanticism of radicalized workers awakening to their own power in a sun-drenched Spanish metropolis to the grim reality of workers clinging to power in Russia’s dark, frozen revolutionary outpost. From “victory in defeat” to “defeat in victory."
The novel was composed a decade after the revolution in Leningrad, where Serge was living in semicaptivity because of his declared opposition to Stalin’s dictatorship over the revolution.
“Nothing in it has dated. . . . It is less an autobiography than a sustained, incandescent lyric (half-pantheist, half-surrealist) of rebellion and battle.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“Surely one of the most moving accounts of revolutionary experience ever written.”
—Neal Ascherson, New York Review of Books
“Probably the most remarkable of his novels. . . . Of all the European writers who have taken revolution as their theme, Serge is second only to Conrad. . . . Here is a writer with a magnificent eye for the panoramic sweep of historical events and an unsparingly precise moral insight.”
—Francis King, Sunday Telegraph
“Intense, vivid, glowing with energy and power . . . A wonderful picture of revolution and revolutionaries . . . The power of the novel is in its portrayal of the men who are involved.”
—Manchester Evening News
“Birth of Our Power is one of the finest romances of revolution ever written, and confirms Serge as an outstanding chronicler of his turbulent era. . . . As an epic, Birth of Our Power has lost none of its strength.”
—Lawrence M. Bensky, New York Times
Men in Prison
Author: Victor Serge
Introduction and Translation by Richard Greeman
Publisher: PM Press/Spectre
Page count: 320 Pages
Subjects: Fiction/Prison Issues
“Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true,” wrote Victor Serge in the epigraph to Men in Prison. “I have attempted, through literary creation, to bring out the general meaning and human content of a personal experience.”
The author of Men in Prison served five years in French penitentiaries (1912–1917) for the crime of “criminal association”—in fact for his courageous refusal to testify against his old comrades, the infamous “Tragic Bandits” of French anarchism. “While I was still in prison,” Serge later recalled, “fighting off tuberculosis, insanity, depression, the spiritual poverty of the men, the brutality of the regulations, I already saw one kind of justification of that infernal voyage in the possibility of describing it. Among the thousands who suffer and are crushed in prison—and how few men really know that prison!—I was perhaps the only one who could try one day to tell all... There is no novelist’s hero in this novel, unless that terrible machine, prison, is its real hero. It is not about ‘me,’ about a few men, but about men, all men crushed in that dark corner of society.”
Ironically, Serge returned to writing upon his release from a GPU prison in Soviet Russia, where he was arrested as an anti-Stalinist subversive in 1928. He completed Men in Prison (and two other novels) in "semi-captivity" before he was rearrested and deported to the Gulag in 1933. Serge’s classic prison novel has been compared to Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, Koestler’s Spanish Testament, Genet’s Miracle of the Rose, and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch both for its authenticity and its artistic achievement.
This edition features a substantial new introduction by translator Richard Greeman, situating the work in Serge’s life and times.
“No purer book about the hell of prison has ever been written.”
—Martin Seymour-Smith, Scotsman
“There is nothing in any line or word of this fine novel which doesn’t ring true.”
“This is a remarkable book… Capable of Dostoyevskian intensity and power...”
—Francis King, Sunday Telegraph
“This novel, properly so called by its author, being truth worked up as art, is strongly recommended both as a document and as a powerful work of literature.”
—Robert Garioch, Listener
"Serge is a writer young rebels desperately need whether they know it or not. He does not tell us what we should feel, he makes us feel it.”
—Stanley Reynolds, New Statesman
For a calendar of speaking events, please click here
- Men in Prison: Anarchist Studies
- Anarchists Never Surrender: Counterpunch
- Anarchists Never Surrender: Review31
- A Blaze in the Desert: Jewish Currents
- A Blaze in the Desert: Leonardo
- A Blaze in the Desert: Socialist Review
Men in Prison: A Review
By Vittorio Frigerio
Volume 26, Spring 2018
"Richard Greeman’s translation is flowing and natural, and his introduction will be most useful for those readers who meet Serge for the first time. A foreword by David Gilbert, described as ‘an anti-imperialist political prisoner’ in the US system, shows that things may not have changed as much as one could have hoped since a century ago. Like much of Serge’s other writing, this should be compulsory reading for anybody interested in matters of social justice or in the history of anarchism.”
A Blaze in the Desert: A Review
By Rebecca Townesend
The collection is in three parts. Resistance includes poems generally written by Serge “during the period of deportation that he spent in Orenburg (1933-36)”. His original dedication to the poems in Messages is included. He wrote from Mexico City in 1946 that he dedicated them to “my surviving friends and comrades from the black years and to our dead, too numerous to name”. The final part, Mains/Hands is just one poem and it is his final one.Read more | Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to reviews | Back to top
A Blaze in the Desert: A Review
By Allan Graubard
Translator James Brook has done valiant service in making this book available with the verve and elegance Serge’s poems deserve. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems by Victor Serge revives a rare presence whose voice, for this reader––despite the travails that marked his life––sings.
A Blaze in the Desert: A Review
By Mitchell Abidor
"Now, thanks to Bay Area poet and translator James Brook’s brilliant and fluid translation of Serge’s two collections of poetry in the volume A Blaze in a Desert (PM Press, 2017, 192 pages), this least-known and vastly underappreciated element of the Serge oeuvre will hopefully reach a wide audience.
Much of the poetry was written when Serge was detained in the Urals for his anti-Stalin activity, conditions hardly propitious for poetry.”
Anarchists Never Surrender: A Review
By Staughton Lynd
August 24th, 2015
...“Anarchist Thought,” in Anarchists Never Surrender, pp. 202-228, is Serge’s own conclusion as to how anarchism and Marxism might be synthesized. It was written at the end of the 1930s when he had left the Soviet Union but remained fully at the height of his powers.
Serge accepts Marxist economic analysis. He says of anarchism that it was “the ideology of small-scale artisans” and that as industrial development became more marked in southern Europe “anarchism surrendered its preeminence in the revolutionary movement to Marxist workers’ socialism.”Read more | Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to reviews | Back to top
Anarchists Never Surrender: A Review
By Ian Birchall
Victor Serge was witness to some of the most momentous events of the first half of the 20th century. He was an anarchist in Brussels and Paris, then, after a spell in jail, went to post-Revolutionary Russia. He supported the Revolution loyally for some years, then opposed the rise of Stalin, returned to the West and ended up in Mexico, escaping the Nazi occupation of France. Best known for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) and novels such as The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1967), he was also a prolific journalist. One of the main themes in his work is an ongoing dialogue with anarchism. Mitchell Abidor has assembled here a fascinating collection of his writings on the subject...Read more | Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to reviews | Back to top
- Marxists' Internet Archive
- Check out a reading of A Blaze in the Desert by writers Luc Sante, Lawrence Joseph, Thomas Sleigh, Richard Greeman, Allan Graubard, Edwin Frank, and Harry Newman of the poetry of Franco-Russian writer and revolutionary Victor Serge at the Cornelia Street Cafe, New York, NY, October 25, 2017.