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#1 Victor Serge and the ‘cycle of revolution’: Men in Prison

by Adam David Morton on January 17, 2019

Following the publication of my article on ‘The Urban Revolution in Victor Serge’, in Annals of the American Association of Geographers, my thinking has returned to collating a series of posts I had previously written on the novelist. These will now be collected on Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with me here initially drawing attention to the informal trilogy he wrote in the 1930s that has become recognised as the ‘cycle of revolution’ collection. This includes Men in Prison [1930], Birth of Our Power [1931], and Conquered City [1932] that all provide a compelling portrait of revolutionary victory. This first post in the series will focus on Men in Prison. Subsequently, a further informal trilogy of novels, written in exile, included Midnight in the Century [1939],  The Case of Comrade Tulayev [1942], and The Long Dusk [1946], that has become recognised as the ‘cycle of resistance’ collection, all about revolutionary defeat. Richard Greeman, who has done the most to translate and interpret many of these novels as well as establish the International Victor Serge Foundation, makes the case that the two cycles combine the themes of victory-in-defeat/defeat-in-victory, reflecting on the reversal of the Russian Revolution.

First, I want to open with a commentary on the book covers released in the 1970s when the first trilogy initially appeared in English. As noted by a great blog site, Judging Books by Their Covers, the novels in the first trilogy were all published by Writers and Readers and carried similar designs by the German artist and communist Gerd Arnz. Contemporary with the writing and setting of the novels, these woodblock prints were produced in the 1930s and are consistent with Arnz’s wider depiction of the life of workers and class struggle. Although the more recent publication of Serge’s novels and non-fiction by The New York Review of Books and PM Press are good, these original covers are more aesthetically appealing.

How do these novels speak to our present? I will highlight a number of key themes that arise in the novels of the trilogy of the ‘cycle of revolution’, not least on the subject of state space as a product of relations of power constantly under construction and spatial issues of geopolitics, which will become significant in this and subsequent blog posts. In relation to Men in Prison, though, I want to start by emphasising the book’s central focus: how a revolutionary political prisoner, incarcerated during World War I, inwardly triumphs at the thought of empires crumbling in the geopolitical crucible beyond the prison bars.

Within the book there is a redemptive message for the political prisoner that has wider resonance. Although the prison operates as a perfect machine whilst wars, epidemics, catastrophes and governmental crises unfold outside, the political prisoner still finds space for liberation inside the prison, through its library. ‘In prison it is a fundamental rule of mental hygiene to work at all costs, to occupy the mind’. However:

The bulk of the Santé Prison library seems to consist of bad adventure novels, old graduation-prize books, Mayne Reid, Jules Verne, unknown and mediocre amateur novelists, probably bought by the obliging administration precisely because they are unsalable to the public.

Despite this, though, the central protagonist concludes that, ‘I learned, along with these books, that the most mediocre printed page can have its value. Everything is in knowing how to read and how to make the book a pretext for meditations’.

And on this very issue one of the wider resonances is with the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. In his own prison letters, on April 22 1929, Gramsci wrote that ‘many prisoners underestimate the prison library’. Revealing his own emerging approach to the sociology of literature, Gramsci continued by questioning the presence of popular serial novels in the prison library and their wider social significance:

why is this sort of literature almost always the most read and the most published? what needs does it satisfy? what aspirations does it answer? what emotions and points of view are represented in these trashy books for them to be so popular?

Anyone aware of the contents of the Maze Prison library in Northern Ireland; of the ‘black palace’ of Lecumberri Prison in Mexico where Adolfo Gilly famously wrote La revolución interrumpida [published in English as The Mexican Revolution]; or of Nâzım Hikmet writing Human Landscapes from my Country in Bursa Prison in Turkey, to name a few, would not be too surprised by analogous circumstances. It is perhaps then noteworthy that in his dispatches on place and space in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance that John Berger has commented on Nâzım Hikmet’s poems that they ‘didn’t describe space; they came through it’.

The conception of space in the world of Men in Prison is also conveyed in at least three interrelated and interacting trajectories. First, there is a focus on the topography of the penitentiary in relation to the rise of the modern state. In conditions of modernity, the prison ‘successfully resolves the problem of economy in space, labour and surveillance’, writes Serge, in terms of its construction, design, and architecture. Following the classical lines of a star-shaped series of cell blocks, echoing Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon writings for prison design, the perfect jail compartmentalises space with a central hub, a series of wings, and stories of galleries for optimum surveillance with minimum personnel. As the central protagonist of the novel relays,

I know of only one perfect and irreproachable work of architecture in the modern city: prison. Its perfection lies in the total subordination of its design to its function. A modern prison is as different from an old crenelated castle . . . as today’s all-powerful capitalist society is unlike the absolute monarchies of olden times, so limited in their real power. Set up in the centre of town, or in the suburbs, a modern prison feels totally secure. Behind its thin walls, its frail buildings spread out in a star-shaped pattern.

Second, this conceiving of space is co-implicated or fused with an understanding of time so that rather than space imposing itself on time, both are understood as open, multiple and relational. Prison existence is ‘a voyage not into space, but into time: forty-six months of darkness to traverse. Fourteen month’s claustration have already been covered. That was only a prelude. What will the sentence be like?’ Just as a row of poplars visible outside the prison boundary brings ‘a fresh wind of life from the open spaces’ and light through the striated bars of the cells means that ‘the purity of space comes through the window in great waves’, then so too does the sequencing of temporal life.

I think of the mystery of time’s passage. There are minutes and hours which have no end: the eternity of the instant. There are many empty hours: the vacuity of time. There are endless days; and weeks which pass without leaving the least memory behind them, as if they had never been. I cannot distinguish the years that are behind me. Time passes within us. Our actions fill it. It is a river: steep banks, a straight path, colourless waves. The void is its source, and it flows into the void. We, who build our cities on its banks, are the ones who raise dikes against it, who colour its waves with the beacons upraised in our hands, or with our blood. Time could not exist outside of my thought. It is whatever I make it. The instant which I fill with light is priceless, like a ray of light from a star which shines for eternity through the space it illuminates.

Third, there is the linkage between these slices through space and time to geographical relations on a global scale. Reference is constantly made throughout Men in Prison to the penal colony system in French Guiana, including specific mention of Devil’s Island, where convicts might even receive a plot of land to till if they behave themselves. Here, Serge anticipates both the narrative of the book Papillon by Henri Charrière (1969) and its film adaptation (directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973); the latter with a final message of intransigence that Serge might even have approved.

In the fictionalised Santé Prison—based on Serge’s own five-year stretch in a French prison  for his connection to the ‘Bonnot Gang’ that conducted bank robberies across Paris—colonial administrators with experience of service in Senegal, as well as the Indo-Chinese and Saharan campaigns, rub shoulders with wider representatives of society, from those often associated with ‘crimes of passion’ to thieves, pimps, gangsters and anarchists. But it is the significance of the distant thunder of artillery, the rows of helmeted ants, and the mobilisation of war that can be heard through the bars of the prison on the horizon that strikes the reader the most. As France gains strength from Canadians, New Zealanders, Hindus, Senegalese and Portuguese, the monstrous nature of world war is marked by the Battle of the Falklands between Britain and Germany (1914), the defeat of the Russian army by Austro-German forces in the Carpathians (1915), and English surrender in Mesopotamia to the Ottoman Army during the Siege of Kut (1916). Empires are under siege and collapsing with all of the maps of world bloodstained. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution awaits as ‘a flame that had long-awaited a spark’.

In his fabulous introduction to Men in Prison, Richard Greeman writes that the ‘underlying unity’ in Victor Serge’s novels is the at once tragic and optimistic vision that pervades the cycles of victory and defeat across the two trilogies, which he recognises mark the ‘cycle of revolution’ and ‘cycle of resistance’. My proposition in this series of posts is that a further underlying unity exists linked to the inherent spatiality of the world contained within the novels of Victor Serge as well as his poetry, memoirs, and non-fiction. In The Eighteenth Brumaire [1852], Karl Marx describes the apparent defeat of revolutionary action in France by arguing that the potential for change had not been destroyed, only deferred, and that the process of transformation, although obscure, would still soon emerge again like a mole from its burrow. It is a metaphor put to good use in contemporary reflections by Emir Sader in The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left [2011]. Indeed, as Serge also writes towards the end of his novel Men in Prison, ‘We must become termites, boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives: In the end, the dike will crumble’.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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