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.


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: 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.