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#2 Victor Serge and the City as Protagonist: Birth of Our Power

by Adam David Morton on January 24, 2019

The wealthy classes know only too well how to juggle away revolutions: “Abracadabra!”

Picking up on my series of posts on Victor Serge, my attention now turns to his second novel in the ‘cycle of revolution’, Birth of Our Power, where the narrative moves from a failed uprising in Barcelona to revolutionary victory in Russia. Written in 1931, it should be recalled that Victor Serge was himself a participant-witness to revolutionary action in four countries (France, Spain, Russia and Germany) before settling in his final country in Mexico. The novel covers the revolutionary years of 1917-1919 through the odyssey of the central anonymous character, from the lost revolution in Spain to Red Petrograd. As Richard Greeman brilliantly conveys, as always in his introductory commentaries, the thread of power is weaved in complex counterpoint throughout the novel: in the Barcelona chapters the implicit question is “Can we seize power?”, whereas in the Petrograd scenes towards the end of the book the dominant query is “What will we become when we do take power?”. But what else does Birth of Our Power reveal about the paradoxes of power and revolution?

With echoes evident in my recent Annals of the American Association of Geographers article, my analysis raises three themes that cluster around: (1) geopolitics and territorial space; (2) the emerging presence of the city as protagonist in the novel; and (3) the tension between revolution, restoration, and counter-revolution in the narrative. My line of reasoning is that all three themes accrue heightened importance as they come to preoccupy the form and content of Serge’s later novels.

Space. The cartography of power and the power of cartography is specifically conveyed through the use of space and the language of maps in Birth of Our Power. The fratricide of World War I has destroyed earlier memories of representational spaces for the central character in the novel. To cite one passage at length:

Since childhood, maps had given me a kind of vertigo. I used to study them. I learned them by heart at the age of twelve, with a desperate and obstinate desire to know every country, every ocean, every jungle, every city. Desperate because I knew in the back of my mind that I would never go to Ceylon, never go up the Orinoco in a dugout canoe, or the Mekong in a gunboat: this desire filled me with a dull ache. Now the serene voices of the maps spoke a terrifying language. Artillery barrages on the Yser and on the Vardar, on the Piave and on the Euphrates . . . Blood on the Carpathians and blood on the Vosges. The defense of Verdun, that incredible mass grave, the crushing of Rumania, the battle of the Falkland Islands, the Cameroon campaign. Every ocean – where the child’s hand had traced the shipping lanes – was a watery grave.

As Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space [1974], ‘space “is” whole and broken, global and fractured, at one and the same time’ and never more so than in Serge’s novels. In Birth of Our Power as much as elsewhere, Serge flows through the spaces of Petrograd and its shadows, silences, and emptiness to convey the city under its lunar landscape, covered in the purity of snow, and the twinkling of places overlaid with whiteness. The frozen granite-banked River Neva also shapes the condition of urban revolution. For, as the character Gregor states, akin to the river, ‘the revolution lives on a layer of ice too, and we do not know what dark ocean lies beneath, ready to engulf us tomorrow’.

The city. Beneath the tragedy and promise of the master frame of revolution the agents of history in Birth of Our Power flood the streets of cities in the desire to shape the present but with ample distractions. For instance, the city of Paris offers bourgeois temptations through synthetic products and ‘imponderable poisons’ that lie beneath its surface. In Barcelona, the city taunts the bearers of revolutionary social change with its lights, diamonds and jewels, café violins, and dancing girls. The citadel of Montjuich stands towering as a powerful symbol of oppression over the city and the swarming human ants of resistance. Spaces of repression in Barcelona are controlled by the guardia civil with their black capes and tricornios that move against the flood tide of the urban uprising. The guardia civil ensure that their sabres are drawn as their horses’ nostrils breath down protesters’ necks to command the void of space in the ensuing ebb tide of revolt. The multifaceted complexity of the urban form becomes apparent.

Every city contains many cities. This was ours. We did not penetrate into the others. There was the city of the calculating businessmen who gorged themselves in the best restaurants and who spent their nights undressing the expensive creatures whom we glimpsed passing in limousines. There was the city of the priests, the monks, the Jesuits in their monasteries surrounded by vast gardens like fortified cities. The city of power – held in contempt – with its decorated generals, its policemen bought for a douro, its jailers, its informers. The city of writers, professors, journalists – a city paid of phrases, of poisoned words and ideas, of lucrative alchemies. The city of spies, labyrinth of mines and countermines, of secret rendezvous, of multiple treacheries . . .

Again turning to Lefebvre in The Urban Revolution [1970], ‘the city writes itself on its walls and in its streets. But that writing is never completed’. Contemporary with the setting of the novel is, of course, the rise of Futurism in Italy and the Estridentista (or Stridentist) movement in Mexico as contained in the manifestos of F.T. Marinetti and Manuel Maples Arce. These battle cries of modernisation contained dreams of utopia, urban transformation, the energy and stimuli of the city. Written in 1921, the Comprimido Estridentista (or ‘Stridentist Prescription’) by Manuel Malpes Arce – included in Alex Danchev’s excellent collection 100 Artists’ Manifestos [2011] – exalted a machine aesthetic: ‘it is there in the gymnastic bridges tautly stretched over ravines on muscles of steel, in the smoke from factory chimneys . . . teeming congested quaysides, the reign of great throbbing industrial cities, the blue shirts of the workers exploding at such an emotional and moving moment’. This aesthetic defined the avant-garde in post-revolutionary Mexico and is wonderfully captured in Manuel Maples Arce’s print to ‘Metropolis’, or Urbe: super-poema bolchevique en cinco cantos [1924].

Yet, as Leon Trotsky caustically relays in Literature and Revolution [1922/23], in relation to the Russian Futurist movement, although there is a connection between aesthetic ‘revolt’ and moral and social revolt in such work, it ends up ‘making much noise about nothing’. Writing for the French magazine Clarté, Serge also surveyed Soviet cultural life, including a focus on Russian Futurists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky. Here, Serge traces the transition from the spirit of revolutionary enthusiasm and creative exploration in the 1920s to totalitarian despair by the 1930s. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary [1942/43], Serge also notes how, on 14 April 1930, Mayakovsky committed suicide by firing ‘a bullet into his heart’. For some, this was the Futurist poet’s final ‘revolutionary act’ signalling the very death of Russian Futurism. Indeed, Mayakovsky’s poem ‘At The Top of My Voice’ [1930] morosely highlights the ‘petrified crap’ of the twilight times of ‘our days’. Summarising Futurism in Italy, Antonio Gramsci stated with gruff appeal in a letter to Trotsky on 8 September 1922, that, ‘The Italian Futurist movement completely lost its character after the war’. Similarly, although the ‘Stridentist Prescription’, like an amphetamine, might have roused the public in Mexico to restlessness given its direct placement in urban space as a poster, it too was absorbed, in this case by the incipient process of capitalist modernisation. In the landscape of Birth of Our Power, the uprising in Barcelona is unable to take the city and its magnificent noises (automobiles, streetcars, music, voices) to command space. But gravitating through space to the city of Petrograd there is the example that old empires and cathedrals can crumble and that cities can be taken through insurrection.

Revolution/restoration/counter-revolution. That brings us to the final dangling thread, the process and outcome of revolutions. In the Hotel Metropole in Petrograd there is the depiction of ‘an old and slightly eccentric scholar, an old emigré, grizzled and hunchbacked’ working tirelessly for the revolution at his mahogany Empire desk with the delicate gestures of a numismatist. With this fleeting glimpse of Lenin and more, Birth of Our Power is resolute in asserting the burning dreams and live energy that charge the power of revolution. However, there is also a poisonous whiff of the asphyxiating conditions of restoration and counter-revolution to come. These are prominent motifs, in particular, in Serge’s later novels: The Case of Comrade Tulayev [1942] and Unforgiving Years [1946]. But the suffocating air of defeat is also hanging over Conquered City [1932], which closes the informal ‘cycle of revolution’ trilogy. In Birth of Our Power, the forces of reaction triumph over the working classes in Spain. Señor Dominico thus declares to Don Ramon, ‘it’s people like that who make revolutions. The riffraff begin the job, the parliaments finish it . . .’, but, as Don Ramon interjects, ‘. . . by finishing off the riffraff’. And in Soviet Russia there is the concern that the very agents of history will be conquered by their own conquest.

Perhaps that is why Victor Serge’s clear counsel in Birth of Our Power is that, ‘You must become mistrustful, arm yourself with critical method, arm yourself with doubt and with assurance, become wary of words, learn to burst them like those marvelous soap bubbles which, fallen, are reduced to paltry artificial spittle’. The victory-in-defeat of Men in Prison and Birth of Our Power becomes a tragic reversal – what Richard Greeman recognises as a peripeteia – in the defeat-in-victory of Conquered City. The tragedy of revolution set in the larger frame of the Great Terror in Soviet Russia is the story to come.

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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