revolutionaries face betrayal and defeat
Victor Serge is one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of the twentieth century. He wrote under extremely difficult conditions, much of the time whilst living in exile – in his adopted homeland Russia, in France, and in Mexico. He frequently had to write in secret and he smuggled his work out of the Soviet Union to be published in France and Spain. His writing was banned throughout the communist period in Russia, and it has only been available there quite recently. Midnight in the Century is the third volume in his first trilogy documenting the struggle for left wing ideals against the tyranny and totalitarian power of Stalin and all he stood for.
His novels are presented in the form of self-contained chapters that sometimes appear to have very little connection with each other. Characters are developed, then suddenly seem to disappear, only to pop up again later in a different context. What Serge was doing was trying to capture the chaotic state of a world in political flux, and create representative figures rather than outstanding individuals – though in the end what he produced turned out to be not unlike the traditional European novel.
He was writing as a witness to history – putting on record the terrible events and dilemmas faced by those who wished to keep a radical political view of the world alive. when it was faced by two totalitarian nightmares at the same time – Nazism and Stalinism. That’s why this novel is called Midnight in the Century. Loyal communist party members who had fought to free their country from Tsarist oppression were confronted by a government which betrayed their revolution, and the slightest criticism they made of the Stalinist regime was interpreted as an act of sabotage, aiding the Nazis. [It is no accident that those two systems of terror eventually united to fight on the same side.]
These grave diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve – the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home – towards a catastrophe.
Serge’s central figures are the idealists, the left-oppositionists who believe in the revolution and work in a self-sacrificing manner for its success. But they are surrounded on all sides by members of the corrupt bureaucracy who are the agents of its betrayal. Of course it is easy to see with seventy years’ hindsight that these left oppositionists, for all their honour, bravery, and discipline – were still searching for a version of the ideological myth that had been imposed on the entire Soviet state – the notion that there was a single, unifying theory which would explain world history and allow the future to be planned.
Midnight in the Century is set in the 1930s, in the period of Stalin’s consolidation of power and his elimination of all opposition. Mikhail Kostov, a university lecturer in Historical Materialism is a left oppositionist sympathiser. He is arrested, thrown into a horrible prison, and left there until he is so demoralised that he writes the ‘confession’ required of him. This results in his being exiled to a remote outpost which is a squalid backwater of the Soviet state. Even there, official diktats and target production quotas are used to oppress the ragged bunch of exiles, peasants, and prisoners who live a pitiful existence of what Marx called ‘rural idiocy’ without even enough to eat.
Stalin’s so-called planned economy is shown to be a complete disaster, based as it is on a combination of wish-fulfilment, lies, and official propaganda. Those few people still capable of any independent thought keep their spirits alive by sending secret messages to their colleagues in similar circumstances. All of them are surrounded by spies, informers, and willing agents of a duplicitous state. Official government policies are based on a form of what we would now call Political Correctness – a series of policies completely out of touch with the reality of people’s lives.
As Stalin manoeuvers the Central Committee into yet another bout of oppression launched in the name of preserving democracy, its waves of terror are shown rippling throughout the archipelago of the GULAG. The regional governor has his quota of detainees to produce, but is driven to distraction because they will not confess to crimes they did not commit. As the oppositionists are all rounded up for yet another spell in prison, the youngest of them escapes, and the novel ends with him in a far flung corner of the Soviet empire, working on a construction site that is building a new Secret Police headquarters.
The novel was written in France between 1936 and 1938 when Serge was finally exiled from the USSR. It lacks the dramatic intensity of his two final masterpieces, The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Unforgiving Years which he wrote in Mexico. But in it he was honing his style, which is his own special brand of literary modernism. The narrative passes from one character to another with seamless transitions, and as it does so he is very fond of entering the point of view of the character on whom the narrative rests, and showing events from that character’s point of view – often using the second person ‘you’. This can sometimes be seen as an outer narrator commenting on the character, and other times the character reflecting on him or herself. Kostrov reflects on the failures of his past and his present ill health as he endures solitary confinement:
You knew very well that you were breaking her heart. Now this pale memory is breaking your heart. For your life is over. You’re still attached to it since your flesh still remembers these feelings. Of no importance. You think you’re unique and that the universe would be empty without you. In reality you occupy in the world the place of an ant in the grass. The ant moves along carrying a louse-egg – a momentous task for which it was born. You crush it without knowing, without being aware of it. Without the ant itself being aware of it. Nothing changes. There will be ants until the end of the world who will bravely carry louse-eggs through the tunnels of the city. Don’t suffer on account of your nullity. Let it reassure you. You lose as little when you lose yourself – and the world loses nothing. You can see very well from up in an aeroplane, that cities are ant hills.
Serge also has what might be called a supra-continental viewpoint from which to depict events. No matter how anguished and personally tragic a character’s situation, we are repeatedly reminded that all of us are specs of dust in any Great Scheme of Things. Not that there is any great scheme – even that psychologically consoling idea is kept at bay. There is only struggle, and the will to be rational and try to understand things. These are the small crumbs of comfort he offers us from this, the bleakest moment in Europe’s history.
Despite the fact that many people might find the subject matter of this novel somewhat specialised or esoteric, the central issues Serge dramatises are fundamental to a full understanding of the ideological and political history of the twentieth century. The sad fact is that in some parts of the world they are still being played out – now, in the twenty-first.
© Roy Johnson 2010
Victor Serge, Midnight in the Century, London: Writers and Readers, 1982, pp.246, ISBN: 090461395X