It’s May Day. Stop working and read.
Today is May Day. And what better way to celebrate International Workers’s Day and remember the activists and reformers of the past by publishing Victor Serge’s autobiography Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the first time the complete text has been published in English. Serge had an incredibly active and courageous life, and this book is the story of that life and the fellow revolutionaries he knew along the way. The bio from the book sums it up well:
Victor Serge (1890–1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Tsarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living ‘by chance’ in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving to join the Revolution in Russia. Detained for more than a year in a French concentration camp, Serge arrived in St. Petersburg early in 1919 and joined the Bolsheviks, serving in the press services of the Communist International. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and arrested in 1929. Nonetheless, he managed to complete three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history (Year One of the Russian Revolution), published in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and of machinations in Spain, which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947. His classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary and his great last novels, Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev (both available as NYRB Classics), were written ‘for the desk drawer’ and published posthumously.
A straggling procession of demonstrators was moving slowly down the street. The cross-traffic halted them, and the outmost man heard Sophia’s words. He turned towards her a placard which he was carrying. Scrawled on it in large characters were the words, Bread or Lead.
“As you say, Madame…. A regular dinner, soup without metaphors. That is what the workers want, is it not? The ten-hour day, two francs a day from the National Workshops, the blessing of Marie and a little organisation from Thomas — that is a prospect to keep them peaceable, eh?”
“Two francs?” said Sophia.
Coin inscribed “Du Pain ou Du Plomb”
“If there is work, naturally. We are told that perhaps, in time, with organisation, with the good-heartedness of employers, there may even be work every other day.”
“I cannot understand,” she exclaimed, “why there is no work. For though an old lady and her spiritual director in the Faubourg St. Germain assured me that the republic was doomed to ruin because no one would have sufficient confidence to buy jewellery or have their window-boxes repainted, I cannot be ninny enough to believe that. Work! The paving of this street alone and the repair of these houses should be enough to employ a hundred men. And the city has got to go on, hasn’t it? — people be fed, and clothed, whether it is a republic or a kingdom?”
She spoke excitedly, forgetting that she was addressing a perfect stranger…. For though it is no affair of mine, she said to herself, yet here I am in the middle of this vaunted republic which is so obviously going wrong; and at least I might know why.
“However, your friends in the Faubourg St. Germain might have given you an inkling,” he said. “They assured you that the republic was doomed to ruin — that is to say, they meant to ruin it. They were even frank enough to inform you how they meant to bring that ruin about. Really, Madame, for an Englishwoman, reared at the very hearth of political economy, you have been a little dense.”
From L’Opinion de Femmes, a feminist journal published 1848–9
While he was speaking the procession had been released, and moved on, he with it. It went the faster for having been stemmed, she had some ado to keep up with him, hauling Minna along with her.
“But their trumpery patronage, their twopenny-halfpenny effect on trade — what difference can that make? And anyhow, they must still buy essentials, they must still buy bread.”
“So must others, with shallower purses … (Bread or Lead,” he shouted, displaying his placard). “Have you never heard of a lock-out, Madame? It is a simple enough system. There is a difference of opinion between the workers and their employer, and the employer says, in effect, Since I can afford to go without my profits longer than you can afford to go without your wages I will close the manufactory until such time as hunger shall compel you to agree with me. The employing class, not only of France but of Europe, the investors, the manufacturers, the middlemen, the banks, the officials, mislike the republic. And so they are using the lock-out against it.”
“Charmingly clear, is it not?” said the boy beyond him, gazing on Sophia with fatherly interest. Not even want had dimmed his good-hearted impertinence, he was one of those Gallic radishes like the porter who had so much pleased her at Calais….
“Yes, I know about lock-outs. It is a device often used in England. But are you going to stand it?” she enquired.
“No!” said the man.
“No,” said Minna beside her — a thoughtful echo.
“Decision is a great deal,” pondered Sophia. “But not quite sufficient. I should think you would do well to get rid of some of your ridiculous leaders, for a start.”
“That idea has occurred to us also, as it happens. The more so, since we do not consider them our leaders. At first, our go-betweens; and now, for some time, our betrayers.”…
“And so … ?”
Before she could finish the question the boy cried out with a brisk cock-a-doodling voice,
“Bread or lead!”
—From Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner