Aleksandr Bogdanov 1923

“Proletarian Poetry”

Written: by A. Bogdanov, June 1923;
Source: “Proletarian Poetry,” The Labour Monthly, Bogdanov, pp. 357-362;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The earlier portion of the above article appeared in the May issue of the Labour Monthly, which can be obtained, post free for 8d., from the publisher at 162 Buckingham Palace Road, S.W.1.

It should be noted that the poetry of the bourgeois world still preserves a great deal of the authoritative consciousness, because bourgeois society has preserved also many elements of authoritative collaboration, of authority and subordination. The variety of the bourgeois groups — big capitalists and petty ones, higher intellectuals, landowners, backward and progressive, stock exchange speculators, renders, &c., together with the different intermixtures and combinations of these groups — naturally gives rise to a variety of forms and subject matter in their poetry, but the basic type is general for all of them.

In machine production the fundamental divergences in the nature of labour begin to disappear. The “working hands” are no longer merely hands, the worker is not a passive mechanical performer. He is subordinated, but he also rules his “iron slave” — the machine. The more complicated and perfect the machine, the more his labour is reduced to observation and control. The worker must know all the aspects and conditions of the work of his machine, and interfere in its motion only when necessary; while, at the inevitable moments of caprice or derangement on the part of the machine, he must be capable of quick perception, initiative, and resolution. All these are fundamental and typical traits of organisational work, and for them one must possess knowledge, intelligence, the capacity for exerted attention, which are the traits of the organiser. But there still remains the physical effort; together with the brains, the hands also have to work.

At the same time sharp distinctions between the workers also begin to disappear; specialisation is transferred from them to the machines, the work at different machines is in its essential organisational contents almost the same. Thus there is room for contact and mutual understanding in work done in common, an opportunity to assist each other with counsel and action. Here is the origin of that fellowship in collaboration which is the basis upon which the proletariat constructs all its organisation.

This form of labour is characterised by the fact that organisational work is closely connected with execution. Here the organiser and the executor are not individual persons, but collectivities. Things are discussed and solved in common, and executed in common; everyone takes part in working out the collective will and in its accomplishment. Organisation is accomplished not through authority and subordination; instead of these there is fellowship, initiative, and management on the part of all, fellowship discipline controls every individual.

There have been germs of fellowship collaboration before, but only in our epoch has it become a primary type of organisation of a whole class. It grows in depth to the degree of the development of technique; it grows in width in the degree that the proletarian masses are gathered in the cities, to the extent that they are concentrated in gigantic enterprises.

This concentration of the proletariat in the cities and factories has a great and complicated influence upon the psychology of the masses. It contributes to the development of the consciousness that in labour, in the struggle against the elements for existence, the individual is only a link in a great chain and, taken separately, would be a powerless plaything of external forces, a shred of fabric cut from a mighty organism and unable to survive alone, The individual “ego” is reduced to its actual dimensions, its proper place.

But while the masses are gathered in the cities, they become removed from nature. The latter reveals itself to the proletariat only as a force in production, not as a source of live impressions. At the same time city life affords the proletariat very few joys and amusements, however many it may give to the ruling classes; and so the workers’ longing for live nature becomes greater, a longing which sometimes passes into a feeling of anguish. This is also one of the reasons for his dissatisfaction, for his struggle to organise new forms of life.

Comradely collaboration is not a ready-made form — it is in a state of development, and has reached different stages in different places. It is followed by the consciousness of fellowship, which is, however, of slower development. This is the primary line of the course of the proletariat. But it is still far from accomplishment even in the most advanced countries. Its accomplishment will be Socialism, which is nothing else than a fellowship organisation of the whole life of society.

The spirit of authority, the spirit of individualism, the spirit of fellowship, these are the three consecutive types of culture. Proletarian poetry belongs to the third, the highest phase.

The spirit of authority is strange to proletarian poetry, it cannot help but be hostile. The proletariat is a subordinated class, and is struggling against subordination.

However, the proletariat is a young class, and its art is still in the stage of childhood. Even in politics, where their experience is greater, millions of the proletarians of Germany, England, and America still follow in the wake of the bourgeoisie. This may happen all the more easily to proletarian poets. So far the poetry of workers is, for the most part, not real poetry. This is not due to the individuality of the author, but to the viewpoint. The poet may not even belong to the working class by his economic position; but if he has become deeply familiarised with the collective life of the proletariat, if he has actually and sincerely become imbued with its strivings, ideals, with its way of thinking, if he exults in its joys and suffers in its sorrows, if, in a word, he has fused his soul with that of the proletariat, then he may be able to give the proletariat artistic expression, he may become the organiser of its forces and its consciousness in poetic form. Of course, this can very seldom happen, and in poetry, as in politics, the proletariat should not count upon allies outside its ranks.

A small prose-poem by a worker — a poet and economist:


When the morning whistles resound over the workers’ suburbs, it is not at all a summons to slavery. It is the song of the future.
There was a time when we worked in poor shops and started our work at different hours of the morning.
And now, at eight in the morning, the whistles sound for a million men.
A million workers seize the hammers at the same moment.
Our first blows thunder in accord.
What is it that the whistles sing?
It is the morning hymn to unity.

From “The Song of the Workers’ B1ow,” by A. Gastev.[1]

This is lyrical poetry, but it is not the poetry of the individual “ego.” For the worker as an individual the whistle is, of course, a reminder of his involuntary labour, it is sometimes even a torturing sensation. But for the growing commune its significance is quite different. The actual creator of the poetry, expressing itself through the poet, is not the same as before, and the things it finds in life are also different. It is the spirit of fellowship.

The investigator most have a foothold in reality. We were in a difficult position at one time, as the few enthusiasts for proletarian art, when we had to speak of things which could not be found in life, when we could not say clearly : “Here, this is real proletarian art; by this model you may judge, with this you may compare.” And I must cite here the poem in which I personally found my foothold.

In the year 1913 there was printed in the Pravda a little poem of Samobitnik:

To a New Comrade

See the wheels that whirl around,
See the mad belts dancing here ...
Comrade, comrade, have no fear!
Let the chaos of steel resound,
Though its many fires be drowned,
Quenched by bitter sea of tears —
Have no fear!

You have come from peaceful haunts,
Quiet fields and brooklets clear.
Comrade, comrade, have no fear!
Here the limitless is bound,
Here the impossible come round ...
This is the dawn of coming years —
Have no fear!

Foaming crests of waves resound
With our fortune coming near. ...
On our kingdom gloomy, drear,
A new sun is shining down,
Burning brighter now than e'er
Have no fear!

Like a giant carved in stone
At the mad belts stand and steer..
Let the wheels go turning still,
Closer now the ranks are drawn —
You're a new link forged in here-
Have no fear!

It is not the artistry that interests us most in this poem. What is most striking is the purity of the contents. I doubt whether one could be more proletarian in feeling and thought.

The thing happened during the old régime. A new worker has come to the factory straight from the village. What is he to the old habitual worker? A competitor, and a most inconvenient one, too: for he lowers the wages, his demands are smaller, and he can hardly assist in the general cause since he is unable to defend even his own interests. Of the general cause he has no idea at all. His thought is slow, his feelings narrow, his will limited, his heroism small .... It is hard to rely on him should there arise a need for concerted action. But observe the attitude of his fellow-worker, the poet, towards him, the strange newcomer. With what chivalrous attention, with what gentle care, he encourages the timid novice and leads him into a world which is unknown, incomprehensible, strange, and even fearful to him! With what simplicity and force, in few words, but with clear images, the poet tells him all that he should know and feel in order to become a comrade among comrades : he draws for him the picture of the gigantic forces of the “steel chaos” of modern technique, he tells him the bitter truth about the “sea of tears” which it costs humanity, and the joyous tidings of the “new sun” of the great ideal, of the proud fortune of common strife. Touching is the recollection of the wonderful far-off nature, of the peaceful haunts, “quiet fields and brooklets clear” amidst stone and iron — the heart of the proletarian is longing for nature, but it is seldom that he gets the joy of meeting with her. But everything will be accomplished by the growing, steady, irresistible effort of the collective creative will .... Victorious confidence sounds in the concluding lines:

Closer now the ranks are drawn —
You're a new link forged in here —
Have no fear!

It is the introduction of a new brother into the knighthood of the Socialist ideal.

Well, is not the poet the organiser of his class?

Proletarian poetry is still in its embryo stages. But it is developing. It is a necessity, because the proletariat wants a full undivided self-consciousness, and poetry is part of this. It is still in its childhood. But even when it grows up the proletariat will not satisfy itself with this poetry alone. It is the legal heir to the whole of past culture, and the heir of all the best things in the poetry of the feudal and bourgeois worlds.

It must acquire this inheritance in such a manner as not to submit to the spirit of the past which reigns in these works — many proletarians have done this before now. The inheritance should not rule the heir, but be a tool in his hands. The dead should serve the living, but not restrain, not chain them.

And for this reason the proletariat must have its own poetry. In order not to submit to this alien poetic consciousness strong in its centuries-old maturity the proletariat must acquire its own poetic consciousness, immutable in its clearness. This new consciousness should unfold and enclose the whole of life, the whole of the world, in its creative unity.

Let proletarian poetry then grow and mature, let it help the working class to become what it is destined by history to be — a fighter and destroyer only from external necessity, a creator by all its nature.

1. Gastev says: “The poems should be read in an even voice, with definite rhythm, like that of paper being fed into a printing machine.” — Translator.