When I first read these memoirs, as a young would-be Soviet historian at the time of their first publication in English, the paragraph that struck me most poignantly and remained imprinted was Serge’s confession that ‘the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me, and that this feeling has been for me the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.’ This remains one of the great lines in the annals of revolutionary memoir. On rereading, however, I found myself equally moved by Serge’s rueful meditations on the uses of human reason. ‘Many times,’ he writes, ‘I have felt myself on the brink of a pessimistic conclusion as to the function of thinking, of intelligence, in society’, even to the point of wondering whether ‘the role of critical intelligence’, which he had exercised so often and at such costs to himself, might not be ‘dangerous, and very nearly useless’. He banishes such thoughts rather lamely with the remark that societies need critical thinking and ‘better times will come’—but then adds, with more conviction, that in any case, the use of the critical faculty is ‘a source of immense satisfactions’ to the thinker. Perhaps, after all, we can regard the life of Victor Serge, perennial critic and dissenter, as, in a certain sense, a happy one.
—Sheila Fitzpatrick, reviewing Memoirs of a Revolutionary in The Guardian. Fitzpatrick was one of the leading figures of the second generation of “revisionist” historians working on the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. Her early work focused on the social mobility of the early Soviet era, emphasizing that, though bloody, Stalinist purges enabled educated people from the lower classes to move upward in Soviet society, and therefore fulfilled some of the purposes of a democratic revolution. Serge himself, as Fitzpatrick points out in her review, was both a witness of the intolerance of criticism towards the Soviet regime (and the brutal suppression of it) and a critic of its undemocratic governance, but ultimately continued to believe in the Bolshevik revolution as a necessary movement towards (Serge’s words) “total transformation.”