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Space, time and revolution

1024px-Palacio_de_Bellas_Artes_-_Mural_Katharsis_Orozco_2

This blog post originally appeared on For the Desk Drawer.

In 2010, three cardboard boxes of Victor Serge’s papers were discovered in the archive of his late widow, Laurette Séjourné, in Amecameca, Mexico. They included letters, drafts, photographs, and a bundle of exercise books, covering the years 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1946. These have been published in French as Victor Serge, Carnets (1936-1947) and further reveal the confluence of concerns he had with both space and time. These are not yet available in English but New Left Review have produced a selection teasing out aspects of these concerns collected under the title ‘Mexican Notebooks’, covering his journey to, and time in, Mexico between 1941 and 1947. What might this snippet offer in understanding this forgotten Marxist and how might it be related to some of Victor Serge’s wider writings?

As a stateless refugee himself, fleeing Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union and war-torn Marseille in 1941, the notebooks deliver further insight on Victor Serge’s spatialised thinking and his own journey on the steamship Capitaine Paul-Lemerle to the Dominican Republic, then Cuba, and Mexico. Referring to the ‘economic migrants’ on the ship he notes how in one corner, referred to as the ‘Champs-Élysées’, there resided those with money, renting the crew’s cabins, keeping themselves to themselves, suspicious of everyone. On the foredeck, regarded as the ‘Left Bank’, were the slightly chic, well-dressed emigrants, the filmmakers and the wealthy existing as if they were on a terrace café. On the upper deck is ‘Montparnasse’, with the sun bathers and the infirm, ‘from there you can see the entire ship and the entire ocean’. In the stern was ‘Belleville’, where individuals were retelling the suicide of Walter Benjamin in 1940, who nevertheless ‘left us a remarkable essay on Baudelaire’. And finally, towards the bow, is the ‘Rosa Luxemburg Platz’, where German friends and their children were residing. This experience was to shape Victor Serge’s sixth novel, The Long Dusk (1946), which itself is a meditation on the spatiality of state power and the plight of stateless refugees.

The spatial metaphors in these notebooks are also reminiscent of the nuanced analysis Victor Serge displays in his earlier writings. Pivotal here is the commentary From Lenin to Stalin (1936), written in exile from the Soviet Union, reflecting on the Stalin-led counterrevolution and the imprisonment, assassination, and exile of the Russian Revolution’s leadership. Here, Serge recounts V. I. Lenin’s speech delivered in 1920 at a meeting of activists that captures how time and space are both structured through their internality. In relation to the years of the Russian Civil War (1919-1921), Lenin stated in his speech:

We gained time, a little time, but in return had to sacrifice a great deal of territory. In those days, I recall, people used to philosophise and say that to gain time we must surrender territory. It was in accordance with the philosophers’ theory of time and space that we acted in practice and in policy: we sacrificed a great deal of territory, but won sufficient time to enable us to muster strength. Then, when all the imperialists wanted to launch a full-scale war against us, that proved impossible: they had neither the means nor the forces for such a war. At that time we sacrificed no fundamental interests; we conceded minor interests and preserved what was fundamental.

This reveals how time and space are related, how the temporal conditions of revolution are also spatially mediated through geography and territory. For Victor Serge, the sacrificing of territory in order to gain time meant also sacrificing the revolution in Finland and Ukraine.

Elsewhere Stefan Kipfer has referred to the spatial historicism of Antonio Gramsci and how he was attuned to both time and space. On the basis of the above, it can be added that the consideration of spatially mediated temporal rhythms was evident in the reflections of both V.I. Lenin and Victor Serge as well. A method of spatial historicism, yielding insights about how concepts and conditions of revolution are as much spatially as temporally mediated therefore links the triumvirate of V.I. Lenin, Victor Serge, and Antonio Gramsci.

Writing generally about the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) – whose work ‘Catharsis’ located in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City can be seen above – Victor Serge states in his Mexican notebooks, ‘Revolutionary inspiration prevails over the betrayals and the disillusionments, art is at times its revenge’. Time and space or the relation of revolution, geography, history, place, and space all link together Lenin, Serge, and Gramsci. Much more, then, can be developed on the issue of spatial historicism and its consequences in and through the thought and action of these revolutionary figures.

Adam Morton

Published inTheory Revolution

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