Birth of Our Power is an epic novel set in Spain, France, and Russia during the heady revolutionary years 1917–1919. Serge’s tale begins in the spring of 1917, the third year of mass slaughter in the blood-and-rain-soaked trenches of World War I, when the flames of revolution suddenly erupt in Russia and Spain. Although the Spanish uprising eventually fizzles, in Russia the workers, peasants, and common soldiers are able to take power and hold it. Serge’s “tale of two cities” is constructed from the opposition between Barcelona, the city “we” could not take, and Petrograd, the starving, beleaguered capital of the Russian Revolution besieged by counter-revolutionary Whites. Between the romanticism of radicalized workers awakening to their own power in a sun-drenched Spanish metropolis to the grim reality of workers clinging to power in Russia’s dark, frozen revolutionary outpost. The novel was composed a decade after the revolution in Leningrad, where Serge was living in semicaptivity because of his declared opposition to Stalin’s dictatorship over the revolution.
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Birth of Our Power
By Victor Serge, Richard Greeman
PM PressCopyright © 2014 Victor Serge Foundation
All rights reserved.
This City and Us
A CRAGGY MASS OF SHEER ROCK — SHATTERING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF HORIzons — towers over this city. Crowned by an eccentric star of jagged masonry cut centuries ago into the brown stone, it now conceals secret constructions under the innocence of grassy knolls. The secret citadel underneath lends an evil aspect to the rock, which, between the limpid blue of the sky, the deeper blue of the sea, the green meadows of the Llobregat and the city, resembles a strange primordial gem ... Hard, powerful, upheaval arrested in stone, affirmed since the beginning of time ... stubborn plants gripping, hugging the granite, and rooting into its crevices ... trees whose obdurate roots have inexorably-cracked the stone and, having split it, now serve to bind it ... sharp angles dominating the mountain, set in relief or faceted by the play of sunlight ... We would have loved this rock — which seems at times to protect the city, rising up in the evening, a promontory over the sea (like an outpost of Europe stretching toward tropical lands bathed in oceans one imagines as implacably blue) — this rock from which one can see to infinity ... We would have loved it had it not been for those hidden ramparts, those old cannons with their carriages trained low on the city, that mast with its mocking flag, those silent sentries with their olive-drab masks posted at every corner. The mountain was a prison — subjugating, intimidating the city, blocking off its horizon with its dark mass under the most beautiful of suns.
We often climbed the paths which led upward toward the fortress, leaving below the scorched boulevards, the old narrow streets gray and wrinkled like the faces of hags, the odor of dust, cooking oil, oranges, and of humanity in the slums. The horizon becomes visible little by little, with each step, spiraling upward around the rock. Suddenly the harbor appears around a bend: the clean, straight line of the jetty, the white flower of a yacht club, floating in the basin like an incredible giant water lily. In the distance, heaps of oranges — like enormous sunflowers dropped on the border of a gray city — piled up on the docks ... And the ships. Two large German vessels: immobile. Under quarantine for several years now, they catch the eye. A six-master, under full sail, glittering in the sun, sails slowly into the harbor from the ends of the sea. Her prow, fringed with dazzling foam, cuts serenely through the amazing blue of liquid silk. She opens horizons even more remote, horizons which I can suddenly see, and which by closing my eyes I see more perfectly: Egypt, the Azores, Brazil, Uruguay, Havana, Mexico, Florida ... From what other corners of the earth did these golden sails come? Perhaps only from Majorca. The ship probably bears the name of an old galleon, the name of a woman or a virgin as sonorous as a line of poetry: Santa Maria de Los Dolores ... Christopher Columbus on his column is now visible above the harbor. Looking out from the city over the sea, the bronze explorer welcomes the sailing ship as she moves in toward him from a past as moving, as mysterious, and as promising as the future.
The city is most attractive in the evening, when its avenues and its plaza light up: soft glowing coals, more brilliant than pearls, earthly stars shining more brightly than the stars of the heavens. By day, it looks too much like any European city: spires of cathedrals above the ancient streets, domes of academies and theaters, barracks, palaces, boxlike buildings pierced by countless windows — A compartmentalized ant heap where each existence has its own narrow cubicle of whitewashed or papered walls. From the very first, a city imparts a sense of poverty. One sees, in the sea of roofs compressed into motionless waves, how they shrivel up and crush numberless lives.
It is from the height that one discovers the splendors of the earth. The view plunges down to the left into the harbor, the gulf lined with beaches, the port, the city. And the blue-shadowed mountains, far from shutting off the distances, open them up. The vast sea laughs at our feet in foamy frills on the pebbles and sand. Plains, orchards, fields marked as sharply as on a surveyor's map, roads lined with small trees, a carpet of every shade of green stretches out to the right on the other side of the rock down to the gently sloping valley, which seems a garden from that height. Mountains on which, when the air is clear, pale snow crystals can be seen at the peak — where earth meets sky — extending our horizons toward eternity.
But our eyes, scanning the faraway snowcap at leisure, or following a sail on the surface of the sea, would always light on the muzzle of a cannon, across the thicketed embankment. Our voices would suddenly drop off, when, at a bend in the path, the stark, grass-covered corner of the citadel's ramparts loomed up before us. The name of a man who had been shot was on all our lips. We used to stop at certain places from which we could see the narrow confines of the dungeons. Somewhere within these fortifications, men like us, with whom each of us at one time or another identified ourselves, men whose names we no longer remembered, had undergone torture not long ago. What kind of torture? We did not know precisely, and the very lack of exact pictures, the namelessness of the victims, the years (twenty) that had passed, stripped the memory bare: nothing remained but a searing, confused feeling for the indignities suffered in the cause of justice. I sometimes used to think that we remembered the pain those men suffered as one remembers something one has suffered oneself, after many years and after many experiences. And, from that notion, I had an even greater sense of the communion between their lives and ours.
Like them — and those ships we saw coming into the harbor — we came from every corner of the world. El Chorro, more yellow-skinned than a Chinese, but with straight eyes, flat temples, and fleshy lips, El Chorro, with his noiseless laugh, who was probably Mexican (if anything): at any rate he used to speak at times familiarly and with admiration of the legendary Emiliano Zapata, who founded a social republic in the Morelos mountains with his rebellious farmers — descendants of ancient bronze-skinned peoples.
"The first in modern times!" El Chorro would proclaim proudly, his hands outstretched. At which point you noticed that he was missing his thumb and index finger, sacrificed in some obscure battle for the first social republic of modern times.
"A little more," he'd say, "and I would have lost my balls as well. A stinking half-breed from Chihuahua nearly snatched them from me with his teeth ..."
"Si hombre!" he would add, breaking into loud and resonant laughter, for the joy of that victory still vibrated through his body.
He made his living selling phony jewelry over in the Paralelo. With a friendly touch and an insinuating laugh, he'd fasten the huge silver loops on the ears of girls from the neighboring towns, sending shivers down their spines as if he had just kissed them on the neck. They all knew him well: from a crowd they would look at him with long, smoldering stares, from beneath lowered eyelids.
Zilz, a French deserter, pretended to be Swiss: Heinrich Zilz, citizen of the canton of Neuchâtel, who taught languages — los idiomas — with childlike earnestness, lived on oatmeal, noodles, and fruit, spoke little but well, dressed carefully, went to bed every night at ten-thirty, went to bed once a week with a five-peseta girl (a good price), and held people in quiet contempt. "It will take centuries to reform them, and life is short. I have enough of a problem with myself, trying to live a little better than an animal, and that's plenty for me."
Jurien and Couet (the one blond, the other chestnut-haired, but whom you would have taken for brothers from their identical Parisian speech, their little toothbrush mustaches, their jaunty walk), had both fled the war, one from the trenches of Le Mort Homme, the other from the Vosges, by way of the Pyrenees. Now they both worked in factories for the benefit of those who still persisted in getting killed, Jurien nailing boots and Couet loading grenades for export to France. They lived happily, from day to day, in the satisfaction of being spared from the fiery hell.
Oskar Lange, a slender muscular lad with reddish hair, bloodshot eyes, thought to be a deserter from a German submarine, was their closest companion. They made him read Kropotkin and Stirner, in that order. And the sailor who had thought only of escaping the fate of rotting in a steel coffin discovered a new source of strength and pride in what he had thought to be his cowardice — thanks to them. We smiled to hear him pronounce the word "Comrade" — somewhat awkwardly — for the first time.
There was also an athletic and intelligent Russian, Lejeune, elegant, handsome, graying at the temples, who had been known for a long time in his youth as Levieux. He lived with Maud, worn-out yet ageless, who had the body of a nervous gamin, a Gothic profile, brown curls, and sudden, catlike movements. And Tibio— el cartero, the postman — with his broad Roman countenance, wide forehead, and noble carriage, who studied the art of living and wrote commentaries on Nietzsche after systematically distributing letters to offices in the business district. Then there were Mathieu the Belgian, Ricotti the Italian, the photographer Daniel, and the Spaniards Dario, Bregat, Andrés, José Miro, Eusebio, Portez, Ribas, Santiago ...
There were at least forty or fifty of us, coming from every corner of the world — even a Japanese, the wealthiest of us all, a student at the university — and a few thousand in the factories and shops of that city: comrades, that is to say, more than brothers by blood or law, brothers by a common bond of thought, habit, language, and mutual help. No profession was foreign to us. We came from every conceivable background. Among us, we knew practically every country in the world, beginning with the capitals of hard work and hunger, and with the prisons. There were among us those who no longer believed in anything but themselves. The majority were moved by ardent faith; some were rotten — but intelligent enough not to break the law of solidarity too openly. We could recognize each other by the way we pronounced certain words, and by the way we had of tossing the ringing coin of ideas into any conversation. Without any written law, we comrades owed each other (even the most recent newcomer) a meal, a place to sleep, a hideout, the peseta that will save you in a dark hour, the douro (a hundred sous) when you're broke (but after that, it's your own lookout!). No organization held us together, but none has ever had as much real and authentic solidarity as our fraternity of fighters without leaders, without rules, and without ties.CHAPTER 2
I HAD LEARNED IN THAT CITY THAT IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO FILL YOUR LIFE with the certainty of not being killed by the end of the day — a prospect dreamed of in those days as the supreme happiness by thirty million men on the soil of Europe. It often happened, during my strolls on the Montjuich rock, that I had the sensation of being at one of the earth's extremities, which resulted in a strange despondency. There, facing the horizon, or during night walks through the happy city, this feeling — usually indistinct within me, attained a somber clarity. The peace we were enjoying was unique, and that city, despite the struggles, the pain, the filth hidden away in her hunger-ridden slums and her indescribably squalid callejitas, was more than happy just to be alive. We were, nonetheless, only a hundred miles from the Pyrenees: on the other side, the other universe, ruled over by the cannon. Not a single young man in the villages. On every train, you encountered the leathery faces of soldiers on leave looking out from under their helmets with probing, weary glances. And the farther north you went, the more the face of the countryside — aggrieved, impoverished, anguished — changed. The feverish but static image of Paris: brilliant lights extinguished in the evening, dark streets in the outlying districts where the garbage piled up, lines of women waiting in front of the local town halls, dense crowds on the streets where countless uniforms mingled, less diverse, no doubt, than the hands and faces of the Canadians, Australians, Serbs, Belgians, Russians, New Zealanders, Hindus, Senegalese ... In war the blood of all men is brewed together in the trenches. The same desire to live and to possess a woman made soldiers on furlough of every race, marked for every conceivable kind of death, wander the streets. The maimed and the gassed, green-faced, encounter those as yet vigorous and whole, bronze skinned, the maimed and the gassed of tomorrow. Some of tomorrow's corpses were laughing raucously. Paris in darkness, the drawn faces of women in the poorer quarters during the bitter February cold, the feverish exhaustion of streets endlessly bearing the burden of an immense disbanded army, the sickly intimacy of certain homes where the war entered with the air you breathed, like a slow asphyxiating gas — remained implanted in my very nerves. And, still farther north — I knew then, Jurien, only a little farther — those trenches of Le Mort Homme which you described to me under the palms of the Plaza de Cataluña on those evenings, cooled by the sea breeze, so magical that the joy of living quickened every light, every silhouette, the hoarse breathing of the vagabond who slept, every muscle deliciously relaxed, on the next bench — those trenches you described, with their odor of putrefaction and excrement. A shellburst knocked you flat, bitter sentry, into a ditch. You saw, your blood (your last, you thought) run into the filth.
("And I didn't give a shit, you understand? I didn't give a shit," you said. "To die here or elsewhere, like this or in any other way — it was all the same to me. All equally stupid ... But that stench was choking me.")
Then the ruined villages, the demolished towns, the leveled forests — hazy memories of news photos. And more corrosive, more intoxicating than anything — gnawing, abrasive — the language of the maps. 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; Zeppelins over London, Gothas over Venice. 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.
How then to live in this city, stretched out along the gulf, adorned in the evening with a million lights, like an odalisque asleep on the beach; how to live here with the acute awareness of the absurd torture Europe was undergoing? I don't know why, perhaps because of Jurien (who no longer thought of it himself), I was obsessed by thoughts of the sentries in the trenches, of silent soldiers dug into their holes — taking up as little room in the earth as the dead — with only their eyes alive, watching a mournful horizon of mud and barbwire (and, of course, a fleshless, rotting hand sticking out of the ground) in that narrow band of earth that belongs to no one, except to Death: no man's land. Identical in their silence, on both sides of the trenches, under helmets scarcely different, dented by the same explosions, protecting the same gray cells of the human animal at bay ... Sentries, brother sentries, stalking each other, stalked by Death, standing watch night and day on the boundaries of life itself, and here I was, strolling in comfortable sandals under the palms of the plaza, my eyes dazzled by the festive Mediterranean sunlight; I, climbing the paths of Montjuich; I, pausing before the goldsmiths' windows of the calle Fernando, flooded by light in the evening as if by a motionless fountain of huge diamonds; I, following the Miramar path cut into the rock above the sea; I, living as that city lived, without fear, invincible, sure of not having my flesh ripped open tomorrow. I possessed these streets — these ramblas — loaded to excess with flowers, birds, women, and warm masculine voices. I had my books; I had my comrades. How was this possible? Wasn't this somehow horribly unjust, incredibly absurd?
Excerpted from Birth of Our Power by Victor Serge, Richard Greeman. Copyright © 2014 Victor Serge Foundation. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Richard Greeman 1
Historical Note 17
1 This City and Us 21
2 Sentry Thoughts 26
3 Lejeune 31
4 Arming 36
5 Allies 41
6 Dario 47
7 The Trap, Power, the King 52
8 Meditation on Victory 59
9 The Killer 64
10 Flood Tide 69
11 Ebb Tide 75
12 The End of a Day 80
13 The Other City Is Stronger 86
14 Messages 93
15 Votive Hand 99
16 Border 103
17 Faustin and Six Real Soldiers 108
18 A Lodging. A Man 113
19 Paris 119
20 Meditation During an Air Raid 125
21 Fugitives Cast Two Shadows 130
22 Dungeon 135
23 Nothing Is Ever Lost 139
24 Little Piece of Europe 145
25 Interiors 151
26 US 157
27 Flight 164
28 Blood 169
29 Epidemic 173
30 The Armistice 179
31 Hostages 184
32 "AS in Water, the Face of a Man…" 190
33 The Essential Thing 196
34 Balance Due 200
35 The Laws Are Burning 204
Translator's Acknowledgments 211
Postface Richard Greeman 212
Victor Serge: Biographical Note 219
Serge in English 227
The Life of Victor Serge 232