Show Hide image

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge - review

Red or dead.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, New York Review Books, 416pp, £9.99

“We revolutionaries, who aimed to create a new society, ‘the broadest democracy of the workers’, had unwittingly, with our own hands, constructed the most terrifying state machine conceivable: and when, with revulsion, we realised this truth, this machine, driven by our friends and comrades, turned on us and crushed us.” The Russian revolutionary Victor Serge’s assessment of the role that he and his comrades played in building the machine that would destroy them is striking in its candour. Virtually all of his friends who managed to survive the dictatorship that was installed in the revolution of October 1917 blamed the totalitarian repression that ensued on factors – the Russian civil war, foreign intervention, Russian backwardness – for which the Bolshevik regime was not responsible.

Refusing to acknowledge his part in constructing and using the machinery of repression, Leon Trotsky pinned most of the blame on Joseph Stalin – a single human being. Here, Serge was more clear-sighted. Trotsky, he wrote, “refused to admit that in the terrible Kronstadt episode of 1921 the responsibilities of the Bolshevik central committee had been simply enormous, that the subsequent repression had been needlessly barbarous, and that the establishment of the Cheka (later the GPU) with its techniques of secret inquisition had been a grievous error on the part of the revolutionary leadership, and one incompatible with any socialist philosophy”.

From a family of anti-tsarist émigrés, Serge (a pen name: his real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich) had been active as an anarchist and taken part in an insurrection in Spain, incarcerated in a French concentration camp and released as part of a deal in which several leading Russian revolutionaries in detention in the west were allowed to travel to Soviet Russia in exchange for the release of western diplomats who had been arrested there.

Working in the Comintern after he arrived in Russia in 1919, Serge soon began to question the Bolshevik regime. Following the Kronstadt massacre, in which thousands of soldiers, sailors and workers were gunned down or captured and executed, following an order signed by Lenin and Trotsky threatening that the rebels would be “ shot like rabbits”, Serge wrote: “The truth was that emergent totalitarianism had already gone halfway to crushing us. ‘Totalitarianism’ did not yet exist as a word; as an actuality, it began to press hard on us, even without our being aware of it.” Contrary to what countless western progressives have insisted, there was no shift from a fundamentally emancipatory regime to one that was essentially repressive. The totalitarian virus did not enter the Soviet state when Stalin took power. It was there right from the start, when Lenin and Trotsky were still in charge.

Fearlessly criticising the Soviet leaders and joining forces with the Workers’ Opposition to combat them, Serge never surrendered his
independence of mind and spirit. A part of the charm of this vivid and absorbing memoir is the gusto with which he recounts a life that was, by any standards, jam-packed with excitement: his dangerous early encounter with the Bonnot Gang, a sodality of radical individualists who went to their deaths in shoot-outs or by the guillotine with slogans such as “Damn the masters, damn the slaves and damn me!”; the years of prison and solitary confinement that followed for Serge; the hatred of the telephone he developed when, as a senior Soviet official living in the Hotel Astoria, it brought him “at every hour the voices of panic-stricken women who spoke of arrests, imminent executions and injustice”; his expulsion from the party, arrest as the ring-leader of a Trotskyite conspiracy and eventual expulsion from the Soviet Union; the life of hardship and surveillance by Soviet agents that followed; his flight from Nazi-controlled France to Mexico via Havana, where he found “ a sensual
delight feeding on electricity – this after our pitifully dark European cities . . . the heady sensation of being in a free country”.

Somehow, along the way, Serge also produced several interesting novels, including The Case of Comrade Tulayev, perhaps the best fictional recreation of Stalin’s purges. His health weakened by years of struggle and poverty, he died of a heart attack in Mexico City in November 1947. Some have speculated that he may have been poisoned by Stalin’s agents. Given that the Soviet security apparatus was murdering politically active émigrés in many countries from the 1920s onwards – Trotsky was only the most well known of those who were killed in this way – the idea is by no means fantastic.

Though he does not put himself at the centre of this extraordinary story, the strand that links everything together is Serge himself – a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history. In moral terms, there can be no doubt that he was on a higher plane than the Bolshevik leaders.

At the same time, possibly for that very reason, Serge was consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop. Lenin and Trotsky knew that revolution is by nature a ruthlessly violent and inherently undemocratic business. Without firing squads, mass imprisonment, the use of family members as hostages (a technique pioneered by Trotsky to secure the loyalty of the Red Army in the civil war) and the routine use of torture by the Cheka, the Soviet regime would have been overthrown soon after it came to power.

As Serge admits, the Kronstadt massacre was unavoidable if the revolution was to continue. In Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he tells us: “After many hesitations, and with unutterable anguish, my Communist friends and I finally declared ourselves on the side of the Party.” He goes on to record how the party newspapers celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune even as the repression of the workers continued. “Meanwhile the muffled thunder of the guns over Kronstadt kept shaking the windows.”

He says less about other and larger Soviet massacres. Though he acknowledges that they “knew that in European Russia alone there were at least fifty centres of peasant insurrection”, he hardly mentions the less well-known but far bloodier crushing of the Tambov peasant rebellion of 1920-21, which the Red Army suppressed by torching entire villages and using poison gas to kill off peasants who fled into the forests.

Serge’s anguish at Soviet repression was undoubtedly genuine but when he writes that shooting captured Kronstadt rebels months after the rising had been quashed was “a senseless and criminal agony”, he shows that he did not grasp the most important fact about the Bolshevik Revolution, which is that it was a version of total war.

There was very little popular support in Russia – then or later – for the Bolsheviks or their programme. Against a background of mounting insurrection, they could avoid de­-feat only by continuously increasing the scale of repression. That is why Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was the head of the Cheka at the time, had the rebels shot and Lenin later ordered that refractory peasants should be executed by public hanging.

Totalitarian repression was not a regrettable departure from the high ideals of socialist philosophy – an unfortunate error of judgement on the part of the Bolshevik leaders. They had no alternative. Mass terror was a condition of their survival. In many ways an admirable human being, Serge refused to face the inexorable logic of revolution, summarised so clearly by Lenin in his celebrated dictum, “Who/whom?”: kill or be killed.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” was recently published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)


John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.