Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of his comrades and left him few publishing opportunities during his lifetime. As Nazi Germany ultimately rose up and invaded France, Serge fled Paris for one final time and luckily managed to secure a final exit from the continent as he became a war refugee in Mexico where he ultimately died peacefully a couple of years after the cessation of hostilities. I love this book for its detailed insight. The frankness of the author is inviting and his ideology and awareness are truly inspiring on both a political and personal level. For any student of world history in the twentieth century this book is a must read and for any aspiring revolutionaries I cannot think of a better book to read (with the possible exception of the Guevarist diaries) in order to quench your revolutionary zeal.

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Review: Marxism and the French Left – by Tony Judt

marxism and the french left

This is an in depth study of socialism in France. The book is broken up into a series of long chapters, each covering a critical period of the political left in France. The emergence of working class political culture in the nineteenth century is explored and we see the development of trade unionism and the creation of socialist parties. The development of the social party, the SFIO is looked at in detail, prior to its rise to power under Blum. We then see the decline in the power of the socialists as they concede proletariat votes to the PCF, communists. The chapter on the French communists looks at the theorists who were so successful at internationalising the ideas and images of French Marxism. Sartre among the most famous, also there is a detailed study of Althusser, who unlike many of the French Marxist writers – was also an actual member of the PCF. The tailing off off Communist popularity as it clung hopelessly to the vestiges of Stalinism, leads to the book’s final chapter, where the rise of the socialists yet again, culminates in the ascendancy of Mitterand at the 1981 French general elections where the socialists swept surprisingly into power. this victory is compared with the Revolution of 1791 and the Paris Commune of 1871 in terms of its relevance to leftist politics in France. I found this book to be very detailed and some chapters were a bit tricky in terms of ideas and specialist vocabulary – but the book, read for a History of French Labour course at Cardiff University – has certainly enlightened me on certain aspects of French working class politics and I feel that the knowledge imparted has been vital.

Review: The New Cold War – by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War
The New Cold War by Edward Lucas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a study of Russia in the post-communist era. It documents the rise of Vladimir Putin and identifies the ‘new cold war’ that envelopes Russia’s relations with the outside world. I found the book to be detailed with information and I was surprised by many of the features of the new Russia. I hadn’t realised that under Putin the Russian economy had been growing really well nor had I an appreciation of his soaring approval rating with his people. The Russian dominance of the energy market, in particular, gas, is quite daunting. I really enjoyed the chapter that focussed on the actual way this energy market is structured. The new Cold War won’t necessarily be fought in terms of military might and arms races. The Russian military strength is very dilapidated and they spend 25 times less on their military budget than the US. The new war will be fought in the markets with hard-hitting Kremlin-supported oligarch cash and the high profits from the energy market. I was surprised at the overall effect how that, since 1989, Russia has reverted back to its old Iron Curtain Soviet ways, despite me imagining that it was all freedom and capitalism there now. ‘Sovereign Democracy’ has quite different values to the political system we understand. The author has done his best in this book to explain what makes Russia tick and how we can possibly overcome a dark new era of global hostilities.

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Review: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a well-written gripping journalistic account of North Korean defectors, describing their lives in the DPRK. I have to question whether the accounts are completely truthful and genuine as so much information which emerges from North Korea tends to be biased. However, the accounts make good reading and describe a truly Orwellian culture that is very unlike our own Western lifestyles. To a romantic socialist, some of what may appear is idyllic, but as is often the case, the horrors of famine and gulags are all too apparent. There is much quaintness in many of the stories, of simple love, of familial ties, of the teaching of children. The emotions felt by North Koreans are just the same as elsewhere in the world. However, it seems as though the state control of all aspects of life is extremely strict. The failure of the food supply system and the healthcare that was a real high point of the earlier years of the DPRK, is all to evident as the communist world collapsed in the late 1980s. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which the defectors adjust to their new lives in South Korea. If ever the two Koreas are united, there is a massive gulf between the cultures which I don’t think can be bridged too easily. Overall, the book is quite disturbing, but still very gripping. I think it should be studied in context alongside other texts on Korea.

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