Lost minds

Sedgwick, Laing and the politics of mental illness

RP 197 () / Article

Our illnesses are mostly political illnesses.  Peter Weiss [1]

In Memoirs of a Revolutionary Victor Serge describes the first decade of Soviet rule as displaying ‘the obscure early stages of a psychosis’, the symptoms of which became increasingly pronounced as time wore on and the defeats and corpses piled ever higher. The experience of living through the twenty-year period from the October Revolution of 1917 to the Stalinist purges (which reached their apex in 1937) he declares ‘must be a psychological phenomenon unique in history’. At various moments in the memoir the reader catches a glimpse of Serge’s wife Liuba Russakova, formerly Lenin’s stenographer, who experienced a severe mental breakdown as a result of the paranoid and persecutory atmosphere in Soviet Moscow:

I found her one evening lying in bed with a medical dictionary in her hand, calm but ravaged. ‘I have just read the article on madness. I know that I am going mad. Wouldn’t I be better off dead?’ Her first crisis had come during a visit to Boris Pilnyak’s; they were discussing the technicians’ trial, and she pushed back the cup of tea offered her, with revulsion – ‘It’s poison, don’t drink it!’ I took her to psychiatrists, who were generally excellent men, and she settled down in the clinics. However, the clinics were full of GPU people curing their nervous difficulties by exchanging secrets. She would come home again a little better for a while, and then the old story began again: ration cards refused, denunciations, arrests, death sentences demanded over all the loudspeakers placed at the street corners. [2]

But Russakova, who died in an asylum in France in 1985, is not a major figure in Serge’s memoirs. Although he occasionally mentions her and their young son Vlady, intimate scenes from his family life surface with infrequency and are presented as incidental to the main thrust of the narrative. Serge reflects that he had little interest in talking about himself except in relation to macrological social processes. As he declared on numerous occasions: ‘My duty was dictated by history itself.’ [3]

Serge’s emphasis on the individual’s subordination to History (with an emphatic capital H) is central to his understanding of revolutionary subjectivity; a subjectivity paradoxically defined by the renunciation of subjectivity – ‘the individual has as much weight as straw in a hurricane’. For as Serge asserts again and again he and his comrades sacrificed their inner lives and personal identities to the revolutionary cause:

None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the Party’s need; we had just enough to live on without real material discomfort, and we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism. [4]

How is it possible to reconcile these statements asserting the necessity of individuals to dissolve into the struggling collective with Serge’s fleeting acknowledgements, based on traumatic first-hand experiences, of the deep psychological wounds that history inflicted on the mental health of the people determined to alter its course? Trauma (travma) may have disappeared from Soviet psychological textbooks as anything other than a word pertaining to physical wounds, but Serge’s memoirs attest that this did not prevent those committed to solidarity (not to mention those indifferent or opposed to it) from experiencing acute psychic pain. [5] If orthodox Marxism–Leninism envisioned the ideal revolutionary vanguard as organized, disciplined and committed, marching in step from spontaneity to consciousness, then how to deal with people who experienced reality as bewildering or fragmentary, who broke down or cracked up, who hallucinated or dissociated, who were mistrustful, exhausted, frenzied or withdrawn?

Peter Sedgwick and Psycho Politics

Peter Sedgwick (1934–1983), who translated Serge’s epic autobiography into English in 1963, was committed to both collective revolutionary politics and the amelioration of individual psychic suffering. In addition to his translations of Serge and active involvement in British left politics, Sedgwick had a …