Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based translator and the author of May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France (2018). His latest book is his translation, with Richard Greeman, of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947 (2019). (May 2019)
Few publications remained as true to their initial goals as Les Temps Modernes, and few demonstrated the rigor and openness and bravery it did in fulfilling it. Fewer still could boast of contributors of the caliber of those who wrote for the journal, especially in its early days, and the quality and durability of their contributions. Difficult as it may be from our perspective, it is important to see that the review was, within its historical moment, making honest attempts to break out of the closed, bourgeois world it rebelliously grew from in order to seriously engage in changing society. If its call for radical action sounds hollow today, more’s the pity for us.
When Victor Serge died of a heart attack in a Mexico City cab in 1947, there were said to be holes in the soles of his shoes. They spoke of the poverty of his last six years in Mexico, but they also symbolized the peripatetic life of this perpetual exile. But it is a life with lessons, for Serge and his rethinking of socialism and the left have a particular resonance today. The rise of right-wing populism, which has taken over the left’s former base, the emergence of the mixed left- and right-populism of the yellow vests in France that rejects political parties, as well as the emergence of a firmly democratic socialism in the US, all point to the need for a re-examination of leftist verities in which Serge engaged, particularly toward the end of his life.
Once it lost the Communist Party (PCF) as the mediating force to represent its grievances, the French working class fulfilled Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 warning that “The immediate expression of the opinion and will of the workers, farmers, neighbors—in brief, the people—is not, per se, progressive and a force of social change: it may be the opposite.” The PCF understood this latent conservatism in the working class of 1968. Not so the New Left student movement. In the end, it had only ouvriérisme sans ouvriers.