Maxim Gorky 1934
Speech: delivered in August 1934;
Source: Gorky, Radek, Bukharin, Zhdanov and others “Soviet Writers’ Congress 1934,” page 25-69, Lawrence & Wishart, 1977. First published in 1935;
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2004;
Transcribed by: Jose Braz for the Marxists Internet Archive.
THE ROLE of the labour processes, which have converted a two-Legged animal into man and created the basic elements of culture, has never been investigated as deeply and thoroughly as it deserves. This is quite natural, for such research would not be in the interests of the exploiters of labour. The latter, who use the energy of the masses as a sort of raw material to be turned into money, could not, of course, enhance the value of this raw material. Ever since remote antiquity, when mankind was divided into slaves and slave-owners, they have used the vital power of the toiling mass in the same way as we today use the mechanical force of river currents. Primitive man has been depicted by the historians of culture as a philosophizing idealist and mystic, a creator of gods, a seeker after “the meaning of life.” Primitive man has been saddled with the mentality of a Jacob Böhme, a cobbler who lived at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century and who occupied himself between whiles with philosophy of a kind extremely popular among bourgeois mystics; Böhme preached that “Man should meditate on the Skies, on the Stars and the Elements, and on the Creatures which do proceed from them, and likewise on the Holy Angels, the Devil, Heaven and Hell.
You know that the material for the history of primitive culture was furnished by archaeological data and by the reflections of ancient religious cults, while the elucidation and study of these survivals have been carried on under the influence of Christian philosophical dogma, to which even atheist historians have been no strangers. This influence may be clearly traced in Spencer’s theory of super-organic evolution, and not in his works alone, but also in those of Frazer and many others. But no historian of primitive and ancient culture has used the material of folklore, the unwritten compositions of the people, the testimony of mythology, which, taken as a whole, is a reflection in broad artistic generalizations of the phenomena of nature, of the struggle with nature and of social life.
It is very hard to conceive of a two-legged animal, who spent all his strength in the struggle for existence, thinking in abstraction from the processes of labour, from questions of clan and tribe. It is difficult to conceive an Immanuel Kant, barefoot and clothed in an animal’s skin, cogitating on the “thing-in-itself.” Abstract thought was indulged in by man at a later period, by that solitary man of whom Aristotle in his Politics said: “Man outside society is either a god, or a beast.” Being a beast, he sometimes compelled recognition as a god, but as a beast, he served as the material for the creation of numerous myths about beast-like men, just as the first men who learned to ride on horseback furnished the basis for the centaur myth.
The historians of primitive culture have completely waived the clear evidence of materialist thought, to which the processes of labour and the sum total of phenomena in the social life of ancient man inevitably gave rise. These evidences have come down to us in the shape of fables and myths in which we hear the echo of work done in the taming of animals, in the discovery of healing herbs, in the invention of implements of labour. Even in remote antiquity men dreamed of being able to fly in the air, as can be seen from the legend about Phaethon, about Daedalus and his son Icarus, and also from the fable of the “magic carpet.” Men dreamed of speedier movement over the earth – hence the fable of the “seven-league boots.” They learned to ride the horse. The desire to navigate rivers faster than the current led to the invention of the oar and the sall. The striving to kill enemy and beast from a distance prompted the invention of the sling, of the bow and arrow. Men conceived the possibility of spinning and weaving a vast amount of fabric in one night, of building overnight a good dwelling, even a “castle,” that is, a dwelling fortified against the enemy. They created the spinning wheel, one of the most ancient instruments of labour; they created the primitive hand loom, and also the legend of Vassllisa the Wise. It would be possible to produce many more proofs to show that all these ancient tales and myths contained a purpose, to show how far-sighted were the fanciful, hypothetical, but already technological thoughts of primitive man, which could rise to such hypotheses of our own day as that of using the force of the earth’s revolution around its own axis, or of breaking up the polar ice. All the myths and legends of ancient times find their consummation, as it were, in the Tantalus myth. Tantalus stands up to his neck in water, he is racked by thirst, but unable to allay it – there you have ancient man amid the phenomena of the outer world, which he has not yet learned to know.
I do not doubt that you are familiar with ancient legends, tales and myths, but I should like their fundamental meaning to be more deeply comprehended. And their meaning is the aspiration of ancient working people to lighten their toll, increase its productiveness, to arm against four-footed and two-footed foes, and also by the power of words, by the device of “exorcism” and “incantation,” to gain an influence over the elemental phenomena of nature, which are hostile to men. The last-named is particularly important, as it betokens how deeply men believed in the power of the word, and this belief is accounted for by the obvious and very real service of speech in organizing the social relations and labour processes of men. “Incantations” were even used to influence the gods. This is quite natural, as all the ancient gods lived on the earth, bore human shape and behaved like men; they were benevolent to the humble, hostile to the recalcitrant; like men, they were envious, vengeful, ambitious. The fact that man created god in his own image goes to prove that religious thought had its origin not in the contemplation of nature, but in social strife. We are quite justified in believing that the raw material for the fabrication of gods was furnished by the “illustrious men” of ancient days. Thus, Hercules, the “hero of labour,” the “master of all trades,” was ultimately exalted to the seat of the gods, Olympus.
God, in the conception of primitive man, was not an abstract concept, a fantastic being; but a real personage, armed with some implement of labour, master of some trade, a teacher and fellow-worker of men. God was the artistic generalization of the achievements of labour, and the “religious” thought of the tolling masses should be placed in quotation marks, since it represented a purely artistic creativeness. In idealizing the abilities of men, and having, as it were, a premonition of their mighty future development, mythology was, fundamentally speaking, realistic. Beneath each flight of ancient fancy it is easy to discover the hidden motive, and this motive is always the striving of men to lighten their labour. It is obvious that this striving originated among men who had to perform physical labour. And it is obvious, too, that god would not have made his appearance and would not have continued so long in the daily lives of men of toil, had he not been so doubly useful to the lords of the earth, the exploiters of labour. The reason why god is so quickly and easily failing into disuse in our country is just because the reason for his existence has disappeared – the need to vindicate the power of man over man, for man should be only a fellow-worker, a friend, companion, teacher to his fellow-man, not the master over his mind and will.
But the more powerful and masterful the slave-owner grew, the higher in the heavens did the gods rise, and among the masses there appeared a desire to combat god, personified in the image of Prometheus, the Esthonian Kalevi and other heroes, who saw god as a hostile lord of lords.
Pre-Christian pagan folklore has not preserved any clearly expressed indications of the existence of thought on “fundamentals,” on “first causes,” on the “thing-in-itself.” In general it has left no signs of that way of thinking which was organized into a system in the fourth century before our era by the “prophet of Attica,” Plato, the founder of a philosophy of abstract aloofness from the processes of labour, from the conditions and phenomena of life. It is well known that the church recognized Plato as a forerunner of Christianity. It is well known that the church, from its inception, stubbornly fought against the “survivals of paganism” – survivals which are a reflection of the materialist outlook of labour. It is well known that as soon as the feudal lords began to feel the strength of the bourgeoisie, there arose the idealist philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, the reactionary nature of which was exposed by Lenin in his militant book against idealism . It is well known that on the eve of the French Revolution, at the end of the eighteenth century, the bourgeoisie availed itself of the materialist idea in order to fight feudalism and its inspirer-religion, but that, having conquered its class foe, and in fear of its new enemy, the proletariat, it immediately reverted to the idealist doctrine and sought the protection of the church. During the course of the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie, feeling with varying degrees of alarm how iniquitous and precarious was its power over the masses of the toiling people, tried to vindicate its existence by the philosophy of criticism, positivism, rationalism, pragmatism and other attempts to distort the purely materialist thought emanating from the processes of labour. These attempts revealed, one by one, their powerlessness to “explain” the world, and in the twentieth century we find that the reputed leader of philosophical thought is the idealist Bergson, whose teaching, by the way, is “favourable to the Catholic religion.” Here you have a definite admission of the need for regression. Add to this the present. wailings of the bourgeoisie concerning the disastrous portent of the irresistible growth of technique, which has created fantastic riches for the capitalists, and you will obtain a pretty clear idea of the degree of intellectual pauperism to which the bourgeoisie has fallen, and of the necessity of destroying it as a historical relic which, in decay, is contaminating the world with the cadaveric poison of its decomposition. The cause of intellectual impoverishment is always to be found in a refusal to recognize the basic meaning of real phenomena, in an escape from life through fear of it, or through an egotistical craving for quiet, through social indifference created by the sordid and loathsome anarchism of the capitalist state.
There is every ground for hoping that when the history of culture will have been written by the Marxists, we shall see that the role of the bourgeoisie in the process of cultural creation has been greatly exaggerated, especially in literature, and still more so in painting, where the bourgeoisie has always been the employer, and, consequently, the law-giver. The bourgeoisie has never had any proclivity towards the creation of culture – if this term be understood in a broader sense than as a mere steady development of the exterior material amenities of life and the growth of luxury. The culture of capitalism is nothing but a system of methods aimed at the physical and moral expansion and consolidation of the power of the bourgeoisie over the world, over men, over the treasures of the earth and the powers of nature. The meaning of the process of cultural development was never understood by the bourgeoisie as the need for the development of the whole mass of humanity. It is a well known fact that, by virtue of bourgeois economic policy, every nation organized as a state became hostile to its neighbours, while the less well organized races, especially the coloured peoples, served the bourgeoisie as slaves, disfranchised to an even greater extent than the bourgeoisie’s own white-skinned slaves.
The peasants and the workers were deprived of the right to education – the right to develop the mind and will towards comprehension of life, towards altering the conditions of life, towards rendering their working surroundings more tolerable. The schools trained and are still training no one but obedient servants of capitalism, who believe in its inviolability and legitimacy. The need for “educating the people” was talked of and written about, and the progress of literacy was even boasted of, but in actual fact the working people were only being split up, imbued with the idea of incompatible distinctions between races, nations and religions. This doctrine is used to justify an inhuman colonial policy, which gives an ever wider scope to the insane lust for profit, to the idiotic greed of shopkeepers. This doctrine has been upheld by bourgeois science, which has even sunk so low as to assert that a negative attitude on the part of people of the Aryan race towards all others “has grown organically out of the metaphysical activity of the whole nation” – although it is quite obvious that if “the whole nation” has become infected with an infamous animal hostility towards the coloured races or the Semites, this infection has been engrafted on it in an actual, physical sense by the foul work of the bourgeoisie, wielding fire and sword. If we remember that the Christian church has turned this work into a symbol of the suffering of the loving son of god, the grim humour of it is exposed with disgusting transparency. We may note in passing that Christ, “the son of god,” is the only “positive type” created by ecclesiastical literature, and this type of one who vainly seeks to reconcile all life’s contradictions is an especially striking proof of this literature’s creative feebleness.
The history of technical and scientific discoveries abounds in cases where even the growth of technical culture has been resisted by the bourgeoisie. These cases are commonly known, as is also the motive for such resistance, viz., the cheapness of labour power. It will be argued that technique, nevertheless, has developed and reached considerable heights. This is indisputable. But this is due to the fact that technique itself augurs, as it were, and suggests to man the possibility and necessity of its further development.
I will certainly not attempt to deny that in its time – for example, in regard to feudalism – the bourgeoisie constituted a revolutionary force and contributed to the growth of material culture, inevitably sacrificing in the process the vital interests and forces of the working masses. However, the case of Fulton shows that the bourgeoisie of France, even after its victory, did not at once appreciate the importance of steamships in the development of trade and for self-defence. And this is not the only case which testifies to the conservatism of the bourgeoisie. It is important that we should grasp the fact that this conservatism, concealing as it did the anxiety of the bourgeoisie to strengthen and safeguard its power over the world, placed all kinds of restrictions in the way of the intellectual growth of the working people; that this nevertheless led in the end to the birth of a new power in the world – the proletariat, and that the proletariat has already created a state where the intellectual growth of the masses is unrestricted. There is only one sphere in which the bourgeoisie has accepted all technical innovations instantly and without demur – that is, in the manufacture of instruments for human destruction. Nobody, I believe, has yet noted the influence which the manufacture of weapons of self-defence for the bourgeoisie has had on the general trend of development in the metal-working industry.
Social and cultural progress develops normally only when the hands teach the head, after which the head, now grown more wise, teaches the hands, and the wise hands once again, this time even more effectually, promote the growth of the mind. This normal process of cultural growth in men of labour was in ancient times interrupted by causes of which you are aware. The head became severed from the hands, and thought from the earth. Speculative dreamers made their appearance among the mass of active men; they sought to explain the .world and the growth of ideas in the abstract, independent of the labour processes, which change the world in conformity with the aims and interests of man. Their function at first was, probably, that of organizing labour experience; they were just such “illustrious men,” heroes of labour, as we see now in our own day, in our country. And then, among these people, the source of all social ills was born – the temptation of one to wield power over many, the desire to lead an easy life at the expense of other men’s labour, and a depraved, exaggerated notion of one’s own individual strength, a notion that was originally fostered by the acknowledgment of exceptional abilities, although these abilities were but a concentration and reflection of the labour achievements of the working collective-the tribe or clan. The severance of labour from thought is attributed by historians of culture to the whole mass of primitive mankind, while the breeding of individualists is even credited to them as a positive achievement. The history of the development of individualism is given with splendid fullness and lucidity in the history of literature. I again call your attention, comrades, to the fact that folklore, i.e., the unwritten compositions of tolling man, has created the most profound, vivid and artistical1y perfect types of heroes. The perfection of such figures as Hercules, Prometheus, Miku1a, Selyaninovich, Svyatogor, of such types as Doctor Faustus, Vassilisa the Wise, the ironically lucky Ivan the Simple and finally Petrushka, who defeats doctor, priest, policeman, devil and death itself – all these are images in the creation of which reason and intuition, thought and feeling have been harmoniously blended. Such a blending is possible only when the creator directly participates in the work of creating realities, in the struggle for the renovation of life.
It is most important to note that pessimism is entirely foreign to folklore, despite the fact that the creators of folklore lived a hard life; their bitter drudgery was robbed of all meaning by the exploiters, while in private life they were disfranchised and defenceless. Despite all this, the collective body is in some way distinguished by a consciousness of its own immortality and an assurance of its triumph over all hostile forces. The hero of folklore, the “simpleton,” despised even by his father and brothers, always turns out to be wiser than they, always triumphs over all life’s adversities, just as did Vassilisa the Wise.
If the notes of despair and of doubt in the meaning of terrestrial existence are sometimes to be heard in folklore, such notes are clearly traceable to the influence of the Christian church, which has preached pessimism for two thousand years, and to the ignorant scepticism of the parasitic petty bourgeoisie whose existence lies between the hammer of capital and the anvil of the working folk. The significance of folklore stands out most vividly when we compare its fantasy, founded on the achievements of labour, with the dull and ponderous fantasy of ecclesiastical literature and the pitiful fantasy of chivalrous romances.
The epic and the chivalrous romance are a creation of the feudal nobility; their hero is the conqueror. It is well known that the influence of feudal literature was never particularly great.
Bourgeois literature began in ancient times, with the Egyptian “Tale of the Thief.” It was continued by the Greeks and the Romans. It emerged again in the epoch of knighthood’s decay to take the place of the chivalrous romance. This is a genuinely bourgeois literature, and its principal hero is the rogue, the thief, later on the detective, and then again the thief – this time the “gentleman burglar.”
From the figure of Till Eulenspiegel, created at the end of the fifteenth century, that of Simplicissimus in the seventeenth century, Lazarillo de Tormes, Gil Blas, the heroes of Smollett and Fielding, down to the “Dear Friend” of Maupassant, to Arsène Lupin, to the heroes of “detective” literature in present-day Europe, we can count thousands of books the heroes of which are rogues, thieves, assassins and agents of the criminal police. This is what constitutes genuine bourgeois literature, reflecting most vividly the real tastes, the interests and the practical “morals” of its consumers. “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good” – and on the subsoil of this literature, generously manured with every conceivable form of vulgarity, including the vulgarity of middle-class “common sense” have sprung up such remarkable artistic generalizations as, for instance, the figure of Sancho Panza, the Till Eulenspiegel of De Coster, and many others of equal worth. One of the best proofs of the deep class interest shown by the bourgeoisie in the portrayal of crime is the well-known case of Ponson du Terrail; when this writer, after many volumes, had at length concluded his story of Rocambole with the death of his hero, the readers organized a demonstration outside Terrails apartment, demanding that the novel be continued. Such success had never fallen to the lot of any of the eminent writers in Europe. The readers received several more volumes of “Rocambole” who was resurrected morally as well as physically. This is a crude example, but one that has its parallels in all bourgeois literature, of how a cut-throat and robber is converted into a good bourgeois. The bourgeoisie read about the dexterity of thieves and the cunning of murderers with the same relish as they read about the astuteness of detectives. Detective fiction is to this very day the favourite spiritual food of well-fed persons in Europe. Moreover, in penetrating into the environment of the semi-starved working man, this type of literature has been and is one of the causes retarding the growth of c1ass consciousness; it arouses sympathy for the adroit thief, it engenders the will to steal, to carry on the guerrilla warfare of isolated individuals against bourgeois property, and, by emphasizing the paltry value which the bourgeoisie sets on working c1ass life, it stimulates an “increase of murders and other crimes against the person. The fervent attachment of Europe’s middle classes to crime fiction is corroborated by the plentiful supply of authors who write such fiction and by the wide circulation which their books enjoy.
It is an interesting fact that in the nineteenth century, when petty knavery assumed heroic and imposing dimensions on the stock exchange, in parliament and in the press, the rogue as a hero of fiction was supplanted by the detective who, in a world full of patent crimes against the working people, showed remarkable ingenuity in unravelling mysterious crimes-of the imagination. It is, of course, no accident that the celebrated Sherlock Holmes should have made his appearance in England, and it is even less of an accident that side by side with this detective genius appeared the “gentleman burglar,” who dupes the clever detectives. Those who interpret this change of heroes as a “play of the imagination” will be mistaken. What the imagination creates is prompted by the facts of real life, and it is governed not by baseless fantasy, divorced from life, but by very real causes – such as those, for example, which impel the “Left” and Right politicians in France to play football with the corpse of the “gentleman burglar” Stavisky, while endeavouring to finish the game “in a draw.”
Of all the forms of artistic creation in words, the most powerful in its influence on people is admitted to be the drama, which reveals the emotions and thoughts of the heroes in living action on the stage. If we trace the progress of European drama from the days of Shakespeare, it descends to the level of Kotzebue, Nestor Kukolnik, Sardou and still lower, while the comedy of Molière declines to that of Scribe; in our country, after Griboyedov and Gogol, it disappears almost entirely. Since art depicts people, it might perhaps be assumed that the decline of the dramatic art points to the decay of strong, boldly chiselled characters, to the fact that “great men” have vanished from the scene.
However, such types are still living a thriving existence to this day as, for instance, the scurrilous Thersites in bourgeois journalism, the misanthrope Timon of Athens in literature, the moneylender Shylock in politics, not to mention Judas, the betrayer of the working class, and many another figure which has been splendidly portrayed in the past. From the seventeenth century to our day this category has grown in quantity and become still more loathsome in quality. The adventurer John Law is a whippersnapper in comparison with adventurers of the type of Oustric, Stavisky, Ivar Kreuger and similar super-swindlers of the twentieth century. Cecil Rhodes and other agents in the field of colonial pillage are worthy counterparts of Cortez and Pizarro. The oil kings, the steel magnates and the like are much more appalling and more criminal than Louis XI or Ivan the Terrible. The little republics of South America contain figures no less lurid than the condottieri of Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Ford is not the sole caricature of Robert Owen. The sinister figure of Pierpont Morgan has no equal in the past, if we except the ancient monarch into whose throat molten gold was poured.
The types enumerated above do not, of course, exhaust the list of diverse “great” men produced by the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These people cannot be denied strength of character, a genius for counting money, plundering the world, and engineering international massacres to increase their personal wealth; one cannot deny their amazing shamelessness or the inhumanity of their diabolically vile work. The realistic criticism and the high artistic literature of Europe have passed by these people without, apparent1y, so much as noticing their existence.
Neither in drama nor in fiction do we find the types of the banker, the manufacturer or the politician depicted with the strength of art which literature has displayed in giving us the type of the “superfluous man.” Nor has literature paid heed to the tragic and all too common fate of the masters and creators of bourgeois culture – the men of science, the artists, the inventors in the technical field. It has failed to notice the heroes who fought to liberate nations from the heel of the foreigner, the dreamers of a brotherhood of man, people like Thomas More, Campanella, Fourier, SaintSimon and others. This is not meant as a reproach. The past is not irreproachable, but there is no sense in reproaching it. It should be studied.
What has brought the literature of Europe to the state of creative impotence which it has revealed in the twentieth century? The liberty of art, the freedom of creative though have been upheld with passionate redundance; all sorts of arguments have been produced to show that literature can exist and develop without reference to classes, that it is not dependent on social politics. This was bad policy, for it imperceptibly impelled many men of letters to constrict their observations of real life, within narrow bounds, to abstain from a broad and many-sided study of life, to shut themselves up “in the solitude of their soul,” to confine themselves to a fruitless form of “self-cognition” by way of introspection and arbitrary thought, altogether detached from life. It has turned out, however, that people cannot be grasped apart from real life, which is steeped in politics through and through. It has turned out that man, no matter what crotchety ideas he may fabricate in regard to himself, still remains a social unit, and not a cosmic one, like the planets. And moreover it has turned out that individualism, which turns into egocentrism, breeds “superfluous people.” It has often been noted that the best, most skilfully and convincingly drawn hero of European literature in the nineteenth century was the type of “superfluous person.” Literature halted in its development to depict this type of person. After the hero of labour – the man who, though technically unarmed, nevertheless had a premonition of his triumphant strength; after the feudal conqueror – the man who understood that it was easier to take things away than to make them; after the bourgeoisie’s favourite swindler, its “teacher in the art of life,” the man who sensed that to steal and defraud was easier than to work, literature halted in its development, paying no heed to the glaring figures of the founders of capitalism, the oppressors of mankind, who are far more inhuman than the feudal nobles, bishops, kings and tsars.
Two groups of writers should be distinguished in the bourgeois literature of Europe. One group extolled and entertained its class, e.g., Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Braddon, Marryat, Jerome, Paul de Kock, Paul Féval, Octave Feuillet, Georges Ohnet, Georges Samarov, Julius Stinde, and hundreds of similar authors. All these are typical “good bourgeois” writers not possessing much talent, but dexterous and trivial, like their readers. The other group, numbering not more than a few dozen, consists of those great writers who created critical realism and revolutionary romanticism. They are all apostates, the “prodigal sons” of their class, aristocrats ruined by the bourgeoisie or scions of the petty bourgeoisie who tore themselves away from the suffocating atmosphere in which their class lived. The books of this latter group of European writers possess a twofold and indisputable value for us: firstly, as works of literature which are models of technical execution, secondly, as documents which explain the process of the bourgeoisie’s development and decay, documents drawn up by apostates of their class, but which elucidate its life, traditions and deeds in a critical light.
It is not my purpose in this report to give a detailed analysis of the role of critical realism in European literature of the nineteenth century. Its essence may be summed up in the struggle against the conservatism of the feudal lords resuscitated by the big bourgeoisie, a struggle waged by organizing democracy – i.e., the petty bourgeoisie – on the basis of liberal and humanitarian ideas, this organizing of democracy being understood by many writers and most readers as a necessary defence both against the big bourgeoisie and against the ever more powerful onslaught of the proletariat.
You are aware that the exceptionally and unprecedentedly powerful growth of Russian literature in the nineteenth century repeated – although somewhat late – all the moods and tendencies of western literature, and in turn influenced it. The special feature of Russian bourgeois literature may be said to be the profusion of types of “superfluous people,” including such altogether original types, unfamiliar to European readers, as the “playboy,” e.g., Vassily Buslayev in folklore, Fedor Tolstoy, Michael Bakunin and others in history – the type of “contrite noble” in literature, the crank and “cross-headed” person in life.
As in the West, our literature developed in two directions. There was the line of critical realism, represented by Von-Vizin, Griboyedov, Gogol, etc., down to Chekhov and Bunin, and the line of purely middle-class literature represented by Bulgarin, Massalsky, Zatov, Golitsynsky, Vonlyarlyarsky, Vsevolod Krestovsky, Vsevolod Solovyev down to Leikin, Averchenko and so on.
When the lucky swindler with his ill-gotfen wealth took his place beside the feudal conqueror, our folklore gave the rich man a companion in the shape of “Ivan the Simple,” an ironical type of personage who achieves riches and even kingship with the aid of a hunchback horse, which takes the place of the good fairy of romance.
The church, striving to reconcile the slave to his fate and to strengthen its power over his mind, sought to comfort him by creating heroes of meekness and longsuffering, martyrs for “Christ’s sake.” Lt created “hermits,” banishing those for whom it had no use to the wilderness, the forest and the monastery.
The more the ruling class split up, the smaller did its heroes become. There came a time when the “simpletons” of folklore, turning into Sancho Panza, Simplicissimus, Eulenspiegel, grew cleverer than the feudal lords, acquired boldness to ridicule their masters, and without doubt contributed to the growth of that state of feeling which, in the first half of the sixteenth century, found its expression in the ideas of the “Taborites” and the peasant wars against the knights.
The real history of the toiling people cannot be understood without a knowledge of their unwritten compositions, which have again and again had a definite influence on the making of such great works as, for instance, Faust, The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Pantagruel and Gargantua; the Till Eulenspiegel of de Coster, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and numerous others. Since olden times folklore has been in constant and quaint attendance on history. It has its own opinion regarding the actions of Louis XI and Ivan the Terrible and this opinion sharply diverges from the appraisal of history, written by specialists who were not greatly interested in the question as to what the combat between monarchs and feudal lords meant to the life of the toiling people. The grossly coercive “propaganda” employed to urge the cultivation of the potato has inspired a number of legends and popular beliefs attributing its origin to the copulation of the devil with a harlot; this is a deviation in the direction of ancient barbarism, consecrated by the foolish church idea that “Christ and the apostles did not eat potatoes.” But this same folklore in our days has raised Vladimir Lenin to the level of a mythical hero of ancient times, equal to Prometheus.
Myth is invention. To invent means to extract from the sum of a given reality its cardinal idea and embody it n imagery that is how we got realism. But if to the idea extracted from the given reality we add – completing the idea, by the logic of hypothesis – the desired, the possible, and thus supplement the image, we obtain that romanticism which is at the basis of myth and is highly beneficial in that it tends to provoke a revolutionary attitude to reality, an attitude that changes the world in a practical way.
Bourgeois society, as we see, has completely lost the capacity for invention in art. The logic of hypothesis has remained, and acts as a stimulus only in the field of the sciences, based on experiment. Bourgeois romanticism, based on individualism, with its propensity for fantastic and mystic ideas, does not spur the imagination or encourage thought. Sundered, detached from reality, it is built not on convincingness of imagery but almost exclusively on the “magic of words,” as we see in Marcel Proust and his votaries. The bourgeois romanticists, from Novalis onward, are people of the type of Peter Schlemihl, “the man who lost his shadow,” and Schlemihl was created by Chamisso, a French émigré who wrote in Germany in German. The literary man of the contemporary West has also lost his shadow, emigrating from realities to the nihilism of despair, as can be seen from Louis Céline’s book, A Journey to the End of the Night; Bardomu the hero of this book, has lost his country, despises mankind, call his mother “bitch” and his mistresses “carrion,” is indifferent to all crimes, and, having no grounds for “joining” the revolutionary proletariat, is quite ripe for the acceptance of fascism.
Turgenev’s influence on the writers of the Scandinavian peninsula is an established fact; Leo Tolstoy’s influence on Count Pahlen, Réné Bazin, Estaunier, Thomas Hardy (in his Tess of the D’Urbervilles) and various other writers in Europe is commonly acknowledged. And the influence of Dostoyevsky has been and remains an especially strong one. This influence was admitted by Nietzsche, whoose ideas form the basis of the fanatical creed and practice of fascism. To Dostoyevsky belongs the credit of having painted with the most vivid perfection of word portraiture a type of egocentrist, a type of social degenerate in the person of the hero of his Memoirs from Underground. With the grim triumph of one who is insatiably taking vengeance for his personal misfortunes and sufferings, for his youthful enthusiasms, Dostoyevsky in the figure of his hero has shown the depths of whining despair that are reached by the individualist from among the young men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who are cut off from real life. This type of his combines within himself the most characteristic traits of Friedrich Nietzsche and of the Marquis Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans Against the Grain, Le Disciple of Paul Bourget; and Boris Savinkov, who made himself the hero of his own composition, Oscar Wilde and Artsybashev’s “Sanine” and many another social degenerate created by the anarchic influence of inhuman conditions in the capitalist state.
As narrated by Vera Figner, Savinkov argued exactly like the decadents: “There is no morality, there is only beauty. And beauty is the free development of persona1ity, the unrestrained unfolding of all that lies within its soul.”
We know quite well with what rottenness the soul of bourgeois personality is burdened!
In a state founded on the senseless and humiliating sufferings of the vast majority of the people, it is fitting that the creed of irresponsible self-will in word and action should be the guiding and vindicating principle. Such ideas as “man is a despot by nature,” that he “likes to be a tormentor,” that he is “passionately fond of suffering,” and that he envisages the meaning of life and his happiness precisely in self-will, in unrestricted freedom of action, that only this self-will will bring him his “greatest advantage,” and “let the whole world perish so long as I can drink my tea” – such are the ideas capitalism has inculcated and upheld through thick and thin.
Dostoyevsky has been called a seeker after truth. If he did seek, he found it in the brute and animal instincts of man, and found it not to repudiate, but to justify. Yes, the animal instincts in mankind cannot be extirpated so long as bourgeois society contains such a vast number of influences which arouse the beast in man. The domesticated cat plays with the mouse it has caught, because the muscles of the beast, the hunter of small swift prey, demand that it should do so; this play is a training of the body. The fascist who, kicking a worker under the chin, dislodges his head from the spinal column, is not a beast, but something incomparably worse – he is a mad animal that should be destroyed, the same heinous brute as the White officer who cuts stripes and stars out of the skin of the Red Army man.
It is difficult to understand just what Dostoyevsky was seeking for, but towards the close of his life he found that that talented and most honest of Russian men, Vissarion Belinsky, was “the most noisome, obtuse and disgraceful thing in Russian life,” that Constantinople must be taken away from the Turks, that serfdom is conducive to “ideal moral relations between the landowners and the peasants,” and finally acknowledged as his preceptor Constantine Pobedonostsev, one of the grimmest figures of nineteenth century Russian life. Dostoyevsky’s genius is indisputable. In force of portrayal his talent is equal perhaps only to Shakespeare. But as a personality, as a “judge of men and the world,” he is easy to conceive in the role of a medieval inquisitor.
The reason why I have devoted so much space to Dostoyevsky is because without the influence of his ideas it would be almost impossible to understand the volte face which Russian literature and the greater part of the intelligentsia made after 1905-06 from radicalism and democracy towards safeguarding and defending bourgeois “law and order.”
Dostoyevsky’s ideas became popular soon after his speech on Pushkin, after the breaking up of the Narodnaya Volya party, which attempted to overthrow the autocracy. Before the proletariat, grasping the great and simple truth of Lenin, had shown its stern countenance to the world in 1905, Peter Struve prudently began to persuade the intelligentsia, like a maiden who had chanced to lose her innocence, to enter into legal marriage with the elderly capitalist. A marriage broker by profession, a bookworm absolutely devoid of original ideas, he issued the call in 1901 of “Back to Fichte” to the idea of subservience to the will of the nation personified by the shopkeepers and the landowners, while in 1907 there was published under his editorship and with his collaboration a collection of articles entitled Landmarks, where the following sentence, quoted word for word, may be round: “We should be grateful to the government for de fending us with bayonets against the wrath of the people.”
These vile words were uttered by the democratic intelligentsia in the days when the bailiff of the landowners, the minister Stolypin, was hanging dozens of workers and peasants daily. The underlying idea in Landmarks was a reiteration of the fanatical idea expressed in the seventies by that inveterate conservative, Constantine Leontiev: “Russia must be chilled,” i.e., all the sparks of social revolution must be stamped out of her. Landmarks, this renegades act of the “Constitutional-Democrats,” won the high approval of the old renegade Leo Tikhomirov, who called it “the sobering of the Russian soul and the revival of conscience.”
The period from 1907 to 1917 was a time when irresponsible ideas ran riot, when Russian men of letters enjoyed complete “freedom of creation.” This liberty found its expression in propaganda of all the conservative ideas of the Western bourgeoisie – ideas which gained currency after the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and which flared up again at regular intervals after 1848 and 1871. It was announced that “the philosophy of Bergson marks a tremendous step forward in the history of human thought,” that Bergson “replenished and deepened the theory of Berkeley,” that “the systems of Kant, Leibnitz, Descartes, and Hegel are dead systems, and the works of Plato, like the sun, shine above them in eternal beauty” – this of Plato, who founded the most pernicious of all fallacies of thought, utterly detached from hard reality, which is continually unfolding in all its aspects in the processes of labour and creation.
Dmitri Merezkovski, a writer of influence in his time, cried:
“Come what may – ‘tis all the same!
Long they’ve wearied of the game,
The three Fates, the eternal Parces –
Dust to dust and ash to, ashes!”
Sologub, following Schopenhauer, and in obvious dependence on Baudelaire and “the damned,” gave a remarkably lucid picture of “the cosmic fatuity of the existence of personality,” and though he plaintively moaned over this in rhyme, he nevertheless went on living a comfortable, bourgeois existence, and in 1914 threatened the Germans to destroy Berlin as soon as “the snow vanishes from the valleys.” The gospel of “Eros in politics,” of “mystical anarchism” was preached. Crafty Vassily Rozanov preached eroticism, Leonid Andreyev wrote nightmare stories and plays, Artsybashev selected as the hero of his novel a lascivious two legged goat in trousers, and altogether, the decade of 1907-17 fully deserves to be branded as the most shameful and shameless decade in the history of the Russian intelligentsia.
As our democratic intellectuals were less disciplined by history than those in the West, the process of their “moral” disintegration, of their intellectual impoverishment, was more rapid in our country. But this process is common to the petty bourgeoisie of all countries and unavoidable for every intellectual who lacks the strength and determination to throw in his lot with the mass of the proletariat, whose historical mission is to change the world for the common benefit of all honestly working people.
It should be added that Russian literature, like its Western counterpart, neglected the landowners, the promotors of industry and the financiers in the period preceding the revolution, although this category of person offered far more colourful and original types in our country than in the West. Russian literature overlooked such nightmare types of landowner as, for instance, the famous Marlame Saltychikha, General Izmailov, together with scores and hundreds of similar characters. Gogol’s caricatures and sketches in his book Dead Souls are not so very characteristic of landed, feudal Russia. The Korobochkas, Manilovs and Petukhs, the Sobakyeviches and Nozdrevs influenced the policy of tsarist autocracy merely by the passive fact of their existence; as blood-suckers of the peasantry, they are not very typical. There were other masters and artists of the blood-sucking art, people of dreadful moral aspect, voluptuaries and aesthetes of cruelty. Their evil deeds have not been noted by artists of the pen, even by the greatest of them, even those who professed their love for the muzhik. There is an abundance of characteristic traits that sharply distinguish our big bourgeoisie from that of the West, the explanation being that our historically young bourgeoisie, pre-eminent1y of peasant extraction, got rich more quickly and easily than did the historically quite elderly bourgeoisie of the West. Our industrialist, untrained by the severe competition of the West, retained almost up to the twentieth century the characteristic traits of the “crank” and the “playboy,” induced perhaps by his own astonishment at the silly ease with which he accumulated millions. One of these, Peter Gubonin, is described by the well-known Tibetan doctor, P. A. Badmayev, in his booklet Wisdom in the Russian People, published in 1917. This entertaining booklet, urging young people to “abjure the writings of the devil which tempt them with the empty words of liberty, equality and fraternity,” gives us the following information about Gubonin, the son of a mason and himself a mason by trade, who became a railroad constructor:
“Most venerable old officials of the period of Russia’s emancipation, who still remember the times of Gubonin, relate the following: Gubonin, appearing at the Ministry in high, tarpolished boots, in a caftan, with a bag of silver, greeted the janitors and messengers in the hall, drew silver out of his bag and gave generously to everybody, bowing low, that they might not forget their- Peter Ionovich. Then he proceeded to the different Departments and Sub-Departments, where he left each official a sealed envelope – each according to hisrank – calling them all by their Christian names and 1ikewise bowing to them. The more exalted personages he greeted and kissed, calling them benefactors of the Russian people, and was quickly admitted to the presence of His Excellency. After Peter Ionovich’s departure from the Ministry, everybody rejoiced. It was a real holiday, such as could only be compared with Christmas or Easter Day. Each one counted what he had received, smiled, wore a gay and cheerful look and was thinking how to spend the rest of the day and night until the following morning. The janitors in the hall were proud of Peter Ionovich, who came from their midst; they called him clever and good, and asked each other how much each had received, but they all concealed it, not wishing to compromise their benefactor. The petty officials whispered among themselves with deep feeling that kind Peter Ionovich had not forgotten them either – so clever, agreeable and honest was he. The high officials, including His Excellency, loudly proclaimed what a lucid, statesmanlike mind he had, what great benefits he was bringing to the people and the state, meriting some distinction. He ought to be invited they said, to the conference dealing with railroad questions, as he is the only clever man concerned with these matters. And indeed, he was invited to the most important conferences, where only distinguished personages and engineers were present, and at such conferences the decisive voice was that of Gubonin.”
This narrative sounds ironical, nut it is actually written in sincere praise of an order of society under which the proud watchword of the bourgeoisie – “Liberty, equality, fraternity” – proved to be nothing more than an empty phrase.
All that I have Said about the creative impotence of the bourgeoisie, as reflected in its literature, may seem to be excessively gloomy; and may expose me to the charge of “tendencious” exaggeration. But facts are facts, and I see them as they are.
It would be silly and even criminal to underestimate the enemy’s strength. We are all perfectly well aware of the strength of his industrial technique-particularly that of the war industries, which sooner or later will be directed against us, but will inevitably provoke a world-wide social revolution and destroy capitalism. Military experts in the West utter loud warnings to the effect that war will involve the entire rear, all the population of the warring countries. It may be presumed that the numerous lower middle class of Europe who have not yet altogether forgotten the :horrors of the 1914-18 massacre and who are scared by the dread inevitability of a new and more horrible carnage, will at last realize who it is that will profit by the coming social catastrophe, who is the criminal that periodically and for the sake of his own nefarious gain exterminates millions of people that they will realize this, and help the proletarians to smash capitalism. We may presume this, but we cannot rely upon its happening, for the jesuit and the craven, the leader of the philistines, the Social-Democrat, is still living. We must firmly rely on the growth of the proletariats revolutionary sense of justice, but it is better still for us to be sure of our own strength and to develop it ceaselessly. It is one of the most essential duties of literature to develop the revolutionary self-consciousness of the proletariat, to foster its love for the home it has created, and to defend this home against attack.
Once, in ancient times, the unwritten artistic compositions of the working people represented the sole organizer of their experience, the embodiment of ideas in imagery and the spur to the working energy of the collective body. We should try to understand this. The object our country has set itself is to ensure the equal cultural education of all units, the equal acquaintance of all its members with the victories and achievements of labour, aspiring to convert the work of men into the art of controlling the forces of nature. We are more or less familiar with the process of the economic-and therefore political-stratification of people, with the process by which the labouring people’s right to the free development of their minds is usurped by others. When the task of interpreting the world became the affair of priests, the latter could arrogate it to themselves only by giving a metaphysical explanation of phenomena and! of the resistance offered by the elemental forces of nature to the aims and energies of men of labour. This criminal process of excluding, debarring millions of people from the work of understanding the world, initiated in antiquity and continuing down to our own day, has resulted in hundreds of millions of people, divided by ideas of race, nationality and religion, remaining in a state of the most profound ignorance, of appalling mental blindness, in the darkness of superstition and. prejudices of every kind; The Communist-Leninist Party, the workers and peasants government of the. Union of Socialist Soviets, which have destroyed capitalism throughout. the length and breadth of tsarist Russia, which have handed over political power to the workers and the peasants, and which are organizing a free c1assless society, have made it the object of their daring, sage and indefatigable activity to free the working masses from the age-old yoke of an old and outworn history, of the capitalist development of culture, which today has glaringly exposed all its vices and its creative decrepitude. And it is from the height of this great aim that we honest writers of the Union of Soviets must examine, appraise and organize our work.
We must grasp the fact that it is the toll of the masses which forms the fundamental organizer of culture and the creator of all ideas, both those which in the course of centuries have minimized the decisive significance of labour – the source of our knowledge-and those ideas of Marx, Lenin and Stalin which in our time are fostering a revolutionary sense of justice among the proletarians of all countries, and in our country are lifting labour to the level of a power which serves as the foundation for the creative activity of science and art. To be successful in our work, we must grasp and fully realize the fact that in our country the social1y organized labour of semi-literate workers and a primitive peasantry has in the short space of ten years created stupendous values and armed itself superbly for defence against an enemy attack. Proper appreciation of this fact will reveal to us the cultural and revolutionary power of a doctrine which unites the whole proletariat of the world.
All of us – writers, factory workers, collective farmers still work badly and cannot even fully master everything that has been made by us and for us. Our working masses do not yet quite grasp the fad that they are working only for themselves. This feeling is smouldering everywhere, but it has not-yet blazed up into a mighty and joyous flame. But nothing can kindle until it has reached a certain temperature, and nobody ever was so splendidly capable of raising the temperature of labour energy as is the Party organized by the genius of Vladimir Lenin, and the present-day leader of this Party.
As the principal hero of our books we should choose labour, i.e., a person, organized by the processes of labour, who in our country is armed with the full might of modern technique, a person who, in his turn,. so organizes labour that it becomes easier and more productive, raising it to the level of an art. We must learn to understand labour as creation. Creation is a concept which we writers use all too freely, though we hardly possess the right to do so. Creation is a degree of tension reached in the work of the memory at which the speed of its working draws from the reserves of knowledge and impressions the most salient and characteristic facts, pictures, details, and renders them into the most precise, vivid and intelligible words. Our young literature can not boast of possessing this quality. The stock of impressions, the sum of knowledge of our writers is not large, and there is no sign of any special anxiety to extend or enrich it.
The principal theme of European and Russian literature in the nineteenth century was personality, in antithesis to society, the state and nature. The main reason which prompted personality to set itself against bourgeois society was an abundance of negative impressions, contradictory to class ideas and social traditions. Personality felt keenly that these impressions were smothering it, retarding the process of its growth, but it did not fully realize its own responsibility for the triviality, the baseness, the criminality of the principles on which bourgeois society was built. Jonathan Swift was one in all Europe, but Europe’s bourgeoisie considered that this satire struck at England alone. Generally speaking, .rebellious personality, in criticizing the life of its society, seldom and barely realized its own responsibility for society’s odious practices. And still more seldom was the prime motive for its criticism of the existing order a deep and correct understanding of the significance of social and economic causes; more often criticism was provoked either by a sense of the hopelessness of one’s life in the narrow iron cage of capitalism, or by a desire to avenge the failure of one’s life and its humiliations. And it can be said that when personality turned to the working mass, it did not do so in the interests of the mass, but in the hope that the working class, by destroying bourgeois society, would ensure it freedom of thought and liberty of action. I reiterate: .the main and fundamental theme of pre-revolutionary literature was the tragedy of a person to whom life seemed cramped, who felt superfluous in society, sought therein a comfortable place for himself, failed to find it, and suffered, died, or reconciled himself to a society that was hostile to him, or sank to drunkenness or suicide.
In our Union of Socialist Soviets, there should not, there cannot be superfluous people. Every citizen enjoys wide freedom for the development of his abilities, talents and faculties. One thing only is demanded of personality: Be honest in your attitude to the heroic work of creating a classless society.
In the Union of Socialist Soviets the workers and peasants government has called upon the whole mass of the population to help build a new culture – and it follows from this that the responsibility for mistakes, for hitches, for spoilage, for every display of middle-class meanness, for perfidy, duplicity and unscrupulousness lies on each and all of us. That means our criticism must really be self-criticism; it means that we must devise a system of socialist morality as a regulating factor in our work and our relationships.
When narrating facts which mark the intellectual growth of the factory workers and the transformation of the age old proprietor into a collective farm member, we writers tend to become mere chroniclers of the bare facts, doing scant justice to the emotional process of these transformations.
We are still poor observers of reality. Even the landscape of the country has changed; gone is its motley poverty – the bluish patch of oats, and, alongside of it, the black strip of ploughed land, the golden ribbon of rye, the green band of wheat, strips of land overgrown with weeds – the whole many-coloured sadness of universal dismemberment and disseverance. In our days, vast expanses of land are coloured a single mighty hue. Above the village and the country town looms not the church, but huge buildings of public usage; giant factories glitter with a million panes of glass, while the toy-like little heathen churches of ancient times speak to us eloquently of the giftedness of our people as expressed in church architecture. the new landscape that has so sharply changed the aspect of our land has not found a place in literature.
We are living in an epoch of deep-rooted changes in the old ways of life, in an epoch of mans awakening to a sense of his own dignity, when he has come to realize himself as a force which is actually changing the world. Many are amused to read that people with names like Svinukhin, Sobakin, Kuteinikov, Popov, Svishchev, etc., ” have changed them to such names as Lensky, Novy, Partisanov, Dedov, Stolyarov, etc. This is not funny, for it marks precisely the growth of human dignity; it shows how people are refusing to bear a name or nickname that is humiliating and reminiscent of the harassed servile past of their grandfathers and their fathers.
Our literature is not sufficiently attentive to the outwardly petty but intrinsically valuable signs which show that people are seeing themselves in a new light, to the processes by which the new Soviet citizen is developing. Svinukhin quite possibly took his name of Lensky, not from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, but by association with the mass murder of the workers on the Lena Goldfields in 1912; Kuteinikov may have really been a partisan, while Sobakin, whose grand father, a serf, may have been exchanged for a dog, really feels himself “new.” To change one’s name before the revolution one had to present a petition in the “sovereign name” of the tsar and when a certain Pevtsov  asked for his surname to be changed to that of his mother and grandmother, Avdotin, the rescript “traced” on the petition was: “Mentally deficient.”
Recently I heard this fact: a sailor in the German navy, a man with a historic name, a descendant of the Decembrist Volkonsky, became a fascist.
“Why?” he was asked.
“Because the officers have been forbidden to strike us,” he replied. Here is a glaring example of how an hereditary aristocrat, a man of the “blue blood,” loses his sense of personal dignity.
The growth of the new man can be seen with especial c1arity among children, yet children remain quite outside literature’s sphere of observation. Our writers seem to consider it beneath their dignity to write about children and for children.
I believe I will not be mistaken in saying that fathers are beginning to show more care and tenderness for their children, which, in my view, is quite natural, as children for the first time in the whole life of mankind are now the inheritors not of their parents money, houses and furniture, but of a real and mighty fortune-a socialist state created by the labour of their fathers and mothers. Never before have children been such intelligent and stern judges of the past, and I quite believe the fact that was related to me of an eleven year-old tubercular little girl who said to the doctor in the presence of her father; pointing her finger at him: “It is his fault that I am ill. Till he was forty years old, he wasted his health on all sorts of bad women, and then married mama. She is only twenty-seven, she is healthy, and he – you can see how miserable he is, and I have taken after him.”
There is every reason to expect that such reasoning among children will be no uncommon thing.
Reality is giving us ever more “raw material” for artistic generalizations. But neither the drama nor the novel has yet given an adequately vivid portrayal of the Soviet woman, who is distinguishing herself as a free agent in all spheres where the new socialist life is being built. It is even noticeable that playwrights are endeavouring to write as few women’s parts as possible. It is hard to understand why. Though woman in our country is the social equal of man, and though she is successfully proving the diversity of her endowments and the breadth of her capacities, this equality is all too frequently and in many ways external and formal. The man has not yet forgotten, or else he has prematurely forgotten, that for centuries woman has been brought up to be a sensual plaything and a domestic animal, fitted to play the part of “housewife.” This old and odious debt of history to half the earth’s inhabitants ought to be paid off by the men of our country first and foremost, as an example to all other men. And here literature should try to depict the work and mentality of woman in such a manner as to raise the attitude towards her above the general level of accepted middle-class behaviour, which is borrowed from the poultry yard.
Further, I deem it necessary to point out that Soviet literature is
not merely a literature of the Russian language. It is an All-Union
literature. Since the literatures of our fraternal republics,
distinguished from ours only by language, live and work in the light and
under the wholesome influence of the same ideas which unite the whole
world of the working people that capitalism has torn asunder, we
obviously have no right to ignore the literary creation of the national
minorities simply because there are more of us than of them. The value
of art is gauged not by quantity but by quality. If we can point to such
a giant as Pushkin in our past history, it does not follow from this
that the Armenians, Georgians, Tatars, Ukrainians, and other peoples are
incapable of producing great masters of literature, music, painting and
architecture. It should be remembered that the process by which the
entire mass of the toiling people is being re-born to “honest human
life,” to the free creation of a new history, to the creation of a
socialist culture, is developing rapidly throughout the length and
breadth of the Union of Socialist Republics. We can see already that,
with each advance, this process brings out more powerfully the latent
abilities and talents that are concealed in this mass of a hundred and
seventy mll1ion people.
I deem it needful, comrades, to communicate to you a letter I have received from a Tatar writer:
The great October Revolution has given us writers of the opressed and backward nations unlimited possibilities, including the possibility of appearing in Russian literature with our works, which, it is true, are as yet far from perfect. As you know, we writers of the national minorities, whose works are printed in the Russian language, already number tens and even hundreds. That is one side of the question on the other hand, Soviet literature in Russian is read today not only by the Russian masses, hut by the working people of all nationalities in our Soviet Union; millions of the rising generation of all the nationalities are being brought up on it. Thus, Soviet proletarian literature in the Russian language is already ceasing to be the exclusive literature of Russian speaking people and people of Russian origin, and is gradually acquiring an international character even in its form. This important historical process advances new and unexpected problems and new demands.
It is highly regrettable that not all writers, critics and editors understand this. That is why so called approved literary opinion in the great centres continues to regard us as an “ethnographical exhibit.” Not all publishing houses like to print us. Some of them often make us feel, when taking our manuscripts, that we are “overhead charges” or a “compulsory quota” for them, that they are “deliberately allowing a rebate on the Party’s national policy.” These “noble .gestures” quite justly off end our sense of international unity and feeling of human dignity. The critics, on the appearance of the work, will at best let fall a few “kind words” for the author and the book, again not so much on their merits as out of “respect” for the Leninist-Stalinist national policy of the Party. This does not educate us either; on the contrary, on some less experienced comrades it has a “demobilizing” and demoralizing effect. And then, after a single edition, usually of five thousand copies, all of which are bought up by lovers of .the exotic and the rare in the big cities, we are relegated to the archives. This practice, apart from the bad moral and material effects it has for us, blocks our way to the mass reader and leads to inevitable national restriction. We very naturally would like to hear about our achievements, if any, about our shortcomings and errors (of which we have more than others), so as to, be able to avoid them in future and we should like to become accessible to the mass reader.
Representatives of literature from all the Union republics and autonomous regions will probably be ready to subscribe to this letter. The historians and critics of our literature should pay heed to this letter and begin to work in such a way as may impress upon people in our country that, though they may belong to different tribes and speak different tongues, each and every one of them is nevertheless a citizen of the first socialist fatherland in the world. As for the rebuke levelled at our critics, we must admit it to be just. Our criticism, especially the newspaper kind, which is most widely read by writers, is untalented, scholastic and uninstructed in regard to current realities. The worthlessness of mere book-and-newspaper knowledge is especially glaring in these days, when real life is changing so quickly, when there is such an abundance of varied activity. Without possessing or elaborating a single guiding critico-philosophical idea, employing one and the same quotations from Marx, Engels and Lenin, the critics hardly ever judge themes, characters and relations between people by facts which are obtained from a direct observation of the rushing current of life. There is much in our country and in our work which Marx and Engels could not, of course, have foreseen. Critics tell the author: “That is wrong, because our teachers have said so and so in this connection.” But they are incapable of saying: “That is wrong, because the facts of reality contradict the author’s statements.” Of all the borrowed ideas which critics use, they have, apparently, quite forgotten that most valuable idea expressed by Engels: “Our teaching is not dogma; it is a guide to action.” Criticism is not sufficiently vital, flexible and alive, and finally the critic cannot teach the author to write simply, vividly, economically, for he himself writes long-windedly and obscurely, and, which is still worse, either perfunctorily or with excessive fervour – the latter when he entertains personal sympathies for the author or is associated with the interests of a clique that is afflicted with “leaderism,” that contagious philistine disease.
“Leaderism” is a disease of the times, resulting from the lowered vitality of philistinism, from the sense of its inevitable downfall in the combat between capitalist and proletarian, and from fear of destruction – a fear which drives the philistine to the side he has long been accustomed to regard as physically the strongest, to the side of the employer, the exploiter of other people’s labour, the plunderer of the world. Inwardly, “leaderism” is the fruit of effete, impotent and impoverished individualism; outwardly, it takes the form of such festering sores as, for instance, Ebert, Noske, Hitler and, similar heroes of the capitalist world. Here, where we are creating a socialist world, such sores are of course impossible. But we still have a few pustules left among us as a heritage from philistinism – people who are incapable of appreciating – the essential distinction between “leaderism” and leadership, although the distinction is quite obvious: leadership, placing a high value on men’s energy, points the way to the achievement of the best practical results with the minimum expenditure of forces, while “leaderism” is the individualistic striving of the philistine to overtop his comrade, which can be done easily enough given a mechanical dexterity, an empty head and an empty heart.
Too often the place of critics is taken by semi-literate reviewers, who merely bewilder authors and wound their feelings, but are incapable of teaching them anything. They fall to notice attempts to resuscitate and restore to currency certain ideas of “Narodnik” literature, and finally-which is most important-they are not interested in the growth of literature in the various regions, let alone the whole Soviet Union. It should he mentioned also that critics do not deal with the public statements of authors in answer to the question of “how they write,” although these statements call for critical attention.
Self-criticism is necessary, comrades. We are working before the eyes of the proletariat, which, as it grows more and more literate, is constantly raising its demands on our art, and, incidentally, on our social behaviour.
Communism of ideas does not coincide with the nature of our actions and the mutual relations existing among us – relations in which a very grave part is played by philistine menta1ity, finding vent in envy, avidity, trivial gossip, and mutual disparagement.
We have written and continue to write a good deal about philistinism, but no embodiment of philistinism in a single person, in a single image, has been given. It is just in a single person that it must be portrayed, and this must be done as powerfully as in such universal types as Faust, Hamlet, etc.
I would remind you that the philistines are a numerous class of parasites who, while producing nothing, endeavour to consume and devour as much as they can-and they do devour it. Battening on the peasantry and the working class, gravitating always toward the paws of the big bourgeoisie, and sometimes, by force of pressure from without, passing over to the side of the proletariat, bringing into its midst anarchism, egocentrism and all the bana1ity which is the historical concomitant. of the philistine, banality of thought which feeds exclusively on routine facts and not the inspirations of labour – philistinism, in so far as it has thought and does think at all, has always propagated and upheld the philosophy of individual growth along the line of least resistance, has sought a more or less stable equilibrium between the two forces. The philistine’s attitude towards the proletariat is most forcibly illustrated by the fact that even the half beggarly peasant, the owner of a miserable plot of land, despised the factory worker, who was destitute of all property except his hands. That the proletariat had a head as well, the philistine noticed only when the proletarians hands came into revolutionary action outside the factory.
Not all weeds are harmful or useless, for many of them yield healing toxins. Philistinism produces only pernicious toxin. If the philistine did not feel himself such an insignificant detail in the capitalist machine, he would not strive so persistently and with such futility to prove his significance and the freedom of his thoughts, his will, his right to existence, and he would not have produced in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so many “superfluous people,” “contrite nobles,” people of the type that is “neither peacock nor crow.”
In the Union of Soviets, philistinism has been displaced, driven out of its lair, out of hundreds of provincial towns, has scattered everywhere and, as we know, has penetrated even into Lenin’s Party, whence it is forcibly ejected during every Party purge. Nevertheless, it remains and acts like a microbe; causing shameful maladies.
The Party leadership of literature must be thoroughly purged of all philistine influences. Party members active in literature must not only be the teachers of ideas which will muster the energy of the proletariat in all countries for the last battle for its freedom; the Party leadership must, in all its conduct, show a morally authoritative force. This force must imbue literary workers first and foremost with a consciousness of their collective responsibility for all that happens in their midst. Soviet literature, with all its diversity of talents, and the steadily growing number of new and gifted writers, should be organized as an integral collective body, as a potent instrument of socialist culture.
The Writers Union is not being created merely for the purpose of bodily uniting all artists of the pen, but so that professional unification may enable them to comprehend their corporate strength, to define with all possible clarity their varied tendencies, creative activity, guiding principles, and harmoniously to merge all aims in that unity which is guiding all the creative working energies of the country.
The idea, of course, is not to restrict individual creation, but to furnish it with the widest means of continued powerful development.
It should be realized that critical realism originated as the individual creation of “superfluous people,” who, being incapable of the struggle for existence, not finding a place in life, and more or less clearly realizing the aimlessness of personal being, understood this aimlessness merely as the senselessness of all phenomena in social life and in the whole historical process.
Without in any way denying the broad, immense work of critical realism, and while highly appreciating its formal achievements in the art of word painting, we should understand that this realism is necessary to us only for throwing light on the survivals of the past, for fighting them, and extirpating them.
But this form of realism did not and cannot serve to educate socialist individuality, for in criticizing everything, it asserted nothing, or else, at the worst, reverted to an assertion of what it had itself repudiated.
Socialist individuality, as exemplified by our heroes of labour, who represent the flower of the working class, can develop only under conditions of collective labour, which has set itself the supreme and wise aim of liberating the workers of the whole world from the man-deforming power of capitalism.
Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family.
Having said so much about the shortcomings of our literature, it is my duty to note its merits and attainments. I have neither space nor time here to point out the vital distinction between our literature and that of the West – that is a lengthy and laborious task, and will partially be dealt with by Comrade Radek in his report. I will only say what is quite clear to any dispassionate judge – namely, that our literature has outstripped the West in novelty of theme, and would remind you that many of our writers are appreciated in the west even more highly than in their own country. In 1930, in an article published in the book, On Literature, I spoke in no uncertain terms and with great joy about our literary attainments. Four years of arduous work have elapsed since then. Does this work warrant my giving a higher appraisal of our literature’s achievements today? It is warranted by the high estimation in which many of our books are held by our principal reader – the worker and collective farmer. You know these books, therefore I will not name them. I will only say that we already have a strong group of artists of the pen, a group that we can acknowledge as the “leading” force in the development of literature.
This group unites the most talented Party writers with the non-Party writers, and the latter are becoming “Sovietist” not in word but in deed, assimilating ever more profoundly the common meaning for all humanity of the heroic work which is being done by the Party and the workers and peasant’s Soviet government. It should not be forgotten that it took Russian bourgeois literature nearly a hundred years reckoning from the end of the eighteenth century-to take up a commanding position in life and influence it in some measure. Soviet revolutionary literature has achieved that influence in the space of fifteen years.
The high standard demanded of literature, which is being rapidly remoulded by life itself and by the cultural revolutionary work of Lenin’s Party, is due to the high estimation in which the Party holds the importance of the literary art. There has never been a state in the world where science and literature enjoyed such comradely help, such care for the raising of professional proficiency among the workers of art and science.
The proletarian state must educate thousands of first class “craftsmen of culture,” “engineers of the soul.” This is necessary in order to restore to the whole mass of the working people the right to develop their intelligence, talents and faculties – a right of which they have been deprived everywhere else in the world. This aim, which is a fully practicable one, imposes on us writers the need of strict responsibility for our work and our social behaviour. This places us not only in the position, traditional to realist literature, of “judges of the world and men,” “critics of life,” but gives us the right to participate directly in the construction of a new life, in the process of “changing the world.” The possession of this right should impress every writer with a sense of his duty and responsibility for all literature, for all the aspects in it which should, not be there.
The Union of Soviet Writers unites 1,500 persons. In ratio to the total population, we thus have one writer to every hundred thousand readers. This is not much; the inhabitants of the Scandinavian peninsula at the beginning of this century had one writer to every 230 readers. The population of the Union of Socialist Republics is constant1y and almost dally demonstrating its giftedness, but we should not think that we shall soon have 1,500 writers of genius. Let us hope for fifty. Not to be deceived, let us say five writers of genius and forty-five very talented ones. I think this figure will do for a start. In the balance, we get people who are still insufficiently attentive to realities, who organize their material poorly all work on it carelessly. To this balance should be added the many hundreds of candidates to the union, and further, hundreds of “beginners” in all the republics and regions. Hundreds of them are writing, dozens are appearing in print. During 1933-34, in different towns from Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk to Rostov and Stalingrad, Tashkent, Voronezh, Kabardino-Balkaria, Tiflis, etc., about thirty symposiums and almanacs have appeared, filled with the works of local beginners.
It is the duty of critics to judge this work. They still fall to notice it, though it is high time they did so. This work, whatever its merits, is evidence of a profound cultural process going on in the mass of the people. In reading these books, you feel that the authors of the different verses, stories and plays are worker correspondents and village correspondents. I believe that we have at least ten thousand young people who aspire to work in literature. Needless to say, the future Literary Institute will not be able to absorb a tenth part of this host.
Now I will ask:
Why has the Congress of Writers been organized, and what aims will the future union pursue? If it is only for the professional welfare of literary workers, it was hardly worth making such a great fuss about. It seems to me that the union should make its aim not only the professional interests of writers, but the interests of literature in general. The union should in some degree assume guidance over the army of beginners, should organize it, distribute its forces to different tasks and teach these forces to work on material derived both from the past and from the present.
Work is being done in our country to bring out a History of Factories and Plants. It appears that it has been a very difficult job to get highly skilled writers to help in this work. So far excel1ent work has been done only by the poetess Shkapskaya and by Maria Levberg; the others not only do not touch the raw material, but do not find time even to edit what has already been prepared.
We do not know the history of our past. It is proposed to publish a history of the former ducal and border towns, from the time of their foundation down to our own day, and a beginning has already been made. This work is to describe to us, in sketches and narrative form, life in feudal Russia, the colonial policy of the princes of Muscovy and the tsars, the development of commerce and industry; it will present a picture of the exploitation of the peasantry by the prince, the waywode, the merchant, the petty trader, the church, and conclude the whole with the organization of the collective farms – the act of complete and real emancipation of the peasantry from the “power of the earth,” from the yoke of ownership.
We should know the past history of the federal republics. To these and many other collective works hundreds of literary beginners can be attracted, and this work will furnish them with the widest scope for self-education, for raising their proficiency through collective work on raw material and through mutual self-criticism.
We should know about everything that existed in the past – not in the way it has already been narrated, but as this illuminated: by the teaching of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, which is being realized by work in the factories and on the farms, work which is organized and guided by a new force in history – by the will and reason of the proletariat of the Union of Socialist Republics.
Such, in my view, is the task of the Writers Union. Our congress should be not only a report to our readers, not only a parade of our endowments; it should take upon itself the organization of literature, the training of young writers on work of nation-wide significance, aimed at a full knowledge of our country’s past and present.
1. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.
2. In Russian, these names are derived from words meaning pig, dog, priest, fistula, etc. The adopted names are derived from the words new, partisan, carpenter, etc. – Ed.
3. From the word “singer.” – Ed.