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: A Social History of France in the 19th Century – by Christophe Charle

a social history of france

This is a translation from the original French and as such I feel that sometimes reads a little strangely as an academic study in that it sometimes has an unusual technique for presenting ideas. It is quite rich in statistics and sometimes the data can be overwhelming. The book is neatly broken down into chapters which focus on the different effects during multiple time periods on the individual classes which compromised 19th century French society. It is clear that each of the revolutions that occurred during this period, even though often initially driven by the lower classes, all had a tendency to ultimately favour the bourgeois status quo among society’s political elite. Even though peasants and working class often bore the brunt of society’s effects, it is also apparent from the study that by the end of the century, in particular during the Belle Epoque, living conditions and standards had actually risen. France caught up with the rest of the Western world in terms of its industrialisation and a more cohesive labour movement gradually improved the lot of wage earners. France moved during three major periods during the nineteenth century. We have the July Monarchy, the Second Empire and the Third Republic. There are good regional examples of the different events that form the country’s social history. I particularly enjoyed the details about various industrial regions such as the mining districts and also the variations across the land from North and South. It is a worthy read, even if sometimes this book does get bogged down in detail.

Review: France 1815-1914 The Bourgeois Century – by Roger Magraw

magraw france

This book focuses on post-revolutionary France, during a period where the bourgeois consolidated their gains from 1789. Three further revolutionary changes of power occurred in France during the studied century and again it was the bourgeois who gained the most from these changes. We see a period of a modernising country, catching up with other industrialised nations. Capitalism endures a fight with the emerging political left which campaigns on behalf of a peasantry and working class whose standards of living are in general on the rise due to new technologies and modernisations. The study goes into each of the classes in depth, during varying periods. Political focuses on anticlericalism, workers’ rights, education and preparing the country for impending military dangers from abroad are varied. Often Magraw will introduce a fairly difficult concept as a topic and through the subtle use of repetition he will develop each of these ideas until by the end of the book the text is fast-flowing and comprehensively understood. I particularly enjoyed the focus on the lower strata of society and the impact of the varied political changes. The book definitely compliments other study I have made on the France of this period.

Review: Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause Without Rebels – by Peter N. Stearns

revolutionary syndicalism

This short book, written in 1971, is a study of syndicalism and its effects on the French Labour movement in the twenty years preceding World War 1. French workers had learned the effectiveness of striking to improve their wages and conditions and there was an increase in strike activity which was mainly co-ordinated by syndicalist labour leaders who drew on the ideas of theorists such as Proudhon. Syndicalist Unions organised their members and there was a shift in awareness among the working classes of how to unite and fight a class struggle. Syndicalism mainly avoided politics and focussed on the economic path to fighting for workers’ rights. Ultimately the non-syndicalist unions came to the fore to champion the workers and as wages increased and conditions improved as a result of strike activity, the thoughts and ideas of the syndicalists lost favour and faded away. The book analyses why the conditions were ripe for syndicalism. The artisanship of the workers, the lack of industrialism, and the regionalism of employers and lack of large companies, all meant that France, during this period was ripe for the syndicalist ideas to flourish.

Review: Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité at Work – by Steve Jefferys

liberté. égalité and fraternité at work

This is a relatively concise look at Employment relations in France. Taken from a contrastive Anglo-Saxon point of view, the author explores the intricacies of the French economic system and how industrial relations are different in France than other Western capitalist nations. In France, strikes, in particular by public sector workers, are notoriously common and tend to make headlines around the world. This study reveals some of the reasons for the French workers’ propensity to take strike action. The government tends to have a major effect on working life and state intervention is common in the French economy. From the effects of Vichy to the Gaullist dirigisme through to the more recent Aubry laws to the present day, the effects of the state, mixed in with the demands of employer and employee associations, there is a complex web of interactions. Trade Unionism in France is relatively undersubscribed but has a large ability to mobilise the workers en masse. There is a myriad of acronyms relating to the various unions and other associations. The CGT, the CFDT, the FO, the employer association Medef. All of these contribute in their own right to forming the employment relations. France has a strong welfare element to its state and has also moved away from its more traditional family-owned patrimonial role of the employer to being more Americanised in its business models with international pension funds being more predominant in the stock market. This book is a great introductory text for my History of French Labour course at Cardiff University and I felt that the author does a very good job of explaining how the French economy operates. I would imagine that over the next year I will be regularly thumbing the pages of this text for reference.

Review: Women and the Second World War in France, 1939-1948: Choices and Constraints – by Hanna Diamond

women ww2 france

This book focuses on the role of French women during World War 2 and the immediate aftermath. It is clear that the women of France bore the brunt of dealing with the occupier, very often their men away, detained as prisoners of war or, for example, sequestered to work abroad in the Fatherland, Germany. Women had to cope with running family businesses, looking after the family, acquiring food. They may have chosen to either be collaborationists or to have joined the resistance. I found it particularly interesting hearing of the women who collaborated with the enemy, either seeking roles within Vichy or directly engaging with the German soldiers. The shorn heads of collaborators at Liberation cast powerful images in the reader. Women became, I feel, more valued in society as a result of their wartime activities and although they may have gone back to their roles afterwards as second class citizens within the family and society, they did earn themselves suffrage and I feel moved women as a whole towards parity with their male counterparts. The book is written in feminists tones, though without being to alienist to the male reader. It is factual and interesting and provides a good basis for further study for the university course I anticipate studying on the subject of Women in World War 2 France.

Review: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although this book was written over a decade ago, it is a great study of the French people that is still relevant today. It is an anthropological assessment and takes a broad stance in how it assesses France. The authors are a Canadian couple so many of the ideas and comparisons are taken from a North American standpoint. A two year study of the French yields many quaint anecdotes as to how and why the French are as they are. In my own experience of France, the French, French language, culture and cuisine, I felt that I was already a true Francophile and knowledgeable about this great country. This book takes my understanding to a deeper level. It points out the reason for many intricacies of French behaviour that I had previously not properly understood. The tendency of French people to be over-correcting about language use is something I have noticed and although, I personally enjoy my linguistic skills being polished, I appreciate that the French do this in a seemingly pedantic way which some foreigners may find offensive. When you get to see the importance of l’Académie française and how it has affected the French language you can understand the pride the French take in their use of words and it is no surprise to learn that literary standards are on average a great deal higher in France than in other developed nations. The book does focus very heavily on the nature of French government. I now understand exactly what Jacobin is: the centralist tendency of French government, with power totally focused on Paris. It is interesting to see how the whole political system has developed, from early autocracy with supreme leaders to a well-balanced modern democracy. There were good explanations and descriptions of the French passion for food and their natural links to the peasants who work the land. I hadn’t realised about the French education system and the way they foster elites, in particular to train to work for their huge civil service. I had thought it was a university system similar to that of Britain or the USA but it quite apparently isn’t. I felt that the book overall gave me a great deal of insight into different aspects of France and opened the door for future study. The book was definitely worth reading as it improved my knowledge. It is a vital text for French studies.

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