Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

5. Trotsky on culture

WE HAVE seen that Trotsky was forced again and again to hold back from direct confrontation with the ruling group. But even with his hands tied behind his back he did not give up the struggle. Instead he used Aesopian language and also took the fight into fields peripheral to the main struggle. Even then his brilliance and the strength of his analysis made a valuable contribution to Marxist thought.

The proletariat that took power in 1917 was tiny, a mere three million industrial workers in a population of 160 million. Over 70 per cent of the population were illiterate. Cultural pauperism of this dimension, without massive aid from more advanced countries after their own successful socialist revolutions, is incompatible with the masses’ ability to emancipate themselves and construct a socialist society.

The aim of socialism is the maximum all-round development of human potential; human needs and desires are its motive force (as against profit under capitalism).

After millennia of suppression of the toiling masses’ personality, the revolution saw its first stirrings. Indeed, according to Trotsky, the prime achievement of the revolution was the ‘awakening of human personality in the masses – who were supposed to possess no personality’. [1] The revolutionary government saw it as its task to nurture this awakening upon which the future of socialism depended. The preamble to the first systematic Education Act of 16 October 1918 echoed Trotsky in stating: ‘The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture’ [2], and towards its development the Bolshevik government gave whatever resources it could spare to education – for people of all ages – which, after the war effort, was given one of the largest shares of the budget.

The awakening personality of the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat unleashed a great thirst for knowledge, eagerness for experiment, imaginative leaps and immense creativity. But these heroic efforts were small islands in the vast sea of illiteracy and obscurantism which swamped most of the country. How to bridge the vast chasm between the immensely idealistic aims of the revolution and the barbarous backwardness of the masses that hampered their ability to shape society in their own interests, inevitably became a key problem for the Bolshevik leaders. It is not surprising therefore that passionate debates on the way forward for culture and art formed a prominent feature of the early post-revolutionary period until the late 1920s, and that most of the leading Bolsheviks participated with vehemence in this fight for the ‘soul’ of the revolution.

Foremost among these was Trotsky. He had always been interested in a wide variety of cultural and artistic activities, even stealing time to read novels when, as commander of the Red Army during the civil war, he raced round the country in his armoured train. When the guns fell silent and the ruling group constrained his political expression he turned to serving the revolution ‘not by politics alone’, but by applying himself to cultural, artistic, educational, social and other activities relevant to the elimination of Russia’s historic barbarism and the cultivation of the ‘human personality’ of the masses.

The debates around culture and art exposed two main problems arising from the huge contradiction between Russia’s highest political achievement and lowest cultural level in Europe (neatly encapsulated in an observation by Trotsky that the Soviet Union had from its heritage both the largest library in the world in Leningrad – through expropriation by the revolution of private libraries – and the lowest level of literacy in Europe). The first was that the backwardness and lack of confidence of the masses could encourage the growth of bureaucracy which found its raison d’etre in and thrived on just such a situation. This would push the masses back into passivity and lead to the degeneration of the revolution. The second was the apparently opposite danger of voluntarism – declaring the creation of a new proletarian culture while the masses were still illiterate. In fact this dovetailed with the first problem, suggesting a form of cultural ‘socialism in one country’.

Trotsky took on board both these problems, insisting on the need for the peasants and workers to struggle to raise their cultural level, thereby holding back bureaucratic arrogance; and denouncing voluntarism in culture expressed in the Proletkult movement, as he had denounced voluntarism in military affairs expressed in the Proletarian Military Doctrine, and in other areas of life.

The first problem he dealt with both in a series of articles written in the summer of 1923, which were collected in a book called Problems of Everyday Life and subsequent publications, and in speaking to meetings of workers in many varied fields on aspects of the subject. The range of topics he covers is astonishingly broad. He takes up questions of philosophy, science, technology, bibliography, philology, stenography, religion, social and individual psychology, literature, library work, the position of women and the family, and much more. All problems are separately dealt with in concrete, often grubby, detail, while taken together the whole book reaches for the stars. This work is unique in Marxist literature, both as the Russian revolution alone exposed concrete examples of the extremes of greatness and smallness, and because few of the revolutionary leaders could span the gulf conceptually.

The proletariat had carried out a successful revolution on the economic and political fronts. But, while this would provide the necessary base for the rise of culture among the masses, and would be untrammelled by capitalist obstructions, a passive wait for the new organisation of the labour process by itself to achieve change would not solve the problems of building socialism. What was needed was constant, active agitation among the masses to consciously reconstruct the mode of life – in effect a cultural revolution.

The active initiative of the masses in cultural change is Trotsky’s constant theme in Problems of Everyday Life. From that it follows that his criterion for society’s cultural advance is the progress of the weakest, most backward elements of society. The revolution, he says, is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual, with an ever-increasing concern for those who are weak. Referring to ‘the average colourless individual of the working masses’ he says: ‘The greater his helplessness, ie, the greater his ignorance and illiteracy, the greater attention should be accorded him.’ [3] In a speech to workers who wrote reports to newspapers he repeats: ‘To arouse the slumbering minds of their most backward fellow workers is the first and foremost task for all worker correspondents’. [4] Without this, the major objective of the soviet state – ‘to draw the broad popular masses into government and to teach them to rule’, an objective ‘we must not under any circumstances lose sight of – would be unattainable. [5]

To help the awakened personality grow and become cultured Trotsky stresses the importance of not relying on the state alone. ‘The fetish of the state, even though it be a proletarian state, does not become us Marxists,’ [6] he observes, ‘No government, even the most alive and enterprising, can possibly transform life without the broadest initiative of the masses’. [7] The state prepares the essentials of a plan, but cannot use one hundredth of the interests, forces, energies that the masses of the population can bring to bear on its evolution. The viability, verification, vitality and concrete benefit of the plan depend upon the extent that the voluntary initiatives of the worker and peasant masses have been put into its drawing up and carrying out. Writing of this in August 1923, he cites examples of successful local or federal voluntary groups and associations which had already been set up in the domains of industry, of daily custom, of worker correspondents, of proletarian and peasant writers. Close to his heart was a ‘Society of Friends of the Red Cinema’ which he hoped would become a powerful revolutionary institution, [8] successfully competing with the tavern and the Church for the workers’ entertainment and desire for celebration. It could thus combat drunkenness and religious obscurantism.

It is in the more intimate problems of everyday living that there is an urgent need to, firstly, break the silence surrounding them, then for agitation among the masses ‘through their vanguard elements to examine their way of life, to think about it critically, to understand the need for change and to firmly want to change.’ [9]

Trotsky does not merely preach active participation of the masses, struggle from below, rousing the weakest and most backward in society. He goes into great detail in attempting to show how these goals may be achieved. The titles of some of his articles indicate this attention to detail: Civility and Politeness as a Necessary Lubricant in Daily Relations, The Struggle for Cultured Speech, How to Begin, Attention to Trifles, Alas, We are not Accurate Enough, Big and Small, A Few Words on How to Raise a Human Being.

This element of active struggle by the masses against Russia’s barbaric heritage runs like a red thread through all Trotsky’s pronouncements on culture. Its validity lies not only in the fact that it is in itself the quickest and surest way of raising social consciousness and securely implanting higher cultural standards in the masses, but also in that it holds back the further encroachment of the bureaucracy, which at the time had already entrenched itself to some considerable degree. Imperative is a ‘remorseless struggle against red tape, against official contempt for the living human being and his affairs’. [10] He mentions a practical step that could be taken against bureaucratic arrogance:

... single out a hundred civil servants – single them out thoroughly and impartially – a hundred who showed a rooted contempt in their duties for the working masses, and publicly, perhaps by trial, chuck them out of the state machine, so that they could never come back again. Do not expect miracles as a result, but it would be a good beginning – a small change from the old to the new is a practical step in advance, which is of greater value than the biggest talk. [11]

Giving another example of progressive action in The Struggle for Cultured Speech, he looks hopefully at the initiative of the Paris Commune shoe factory workers who passed a motion to abstain from swearing, imposing fines for bad language, etc. If this were taken up in the working class, it could have telling consequences for the advance of cultured speech. Trotsky goes on to analyse why the Russian language was so outstanding among languages in its loose, sticky and low terms of abuse’.

Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity – one’s own and that of other people ...

He then differentiates between the swearing of the different classes:

Russian swearing in the lower depths’ was the result of despair, embitterment, and, above all, slavery without hope, without escape. The swearing of the upper classes, on the other hand, the swearing that came out of the throats of the gentry, the authorities, was the outcome of class rule, slaveowner’s pride, unshakeable power.

In this context, the Paris Commune’s decision was ‘a small incident in the turmoil of the present day – but a very telling small incident’. [12]

In all the gatherings Trotsky addressed in the early and middle 1920s his purpose was not to praise or censure the workers, but to show how through their particular job they could influence other workers and advance their culture. For instance, in a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Librarians in July 1924 he insists ‘a librarian is not an official dealing with books but rather he is, must be, must become a cultural warrior ... lighting for socialist culture’. [13] He compares the countries of Europe – under the hypnosis of a powerful bourgeois culture – with backward Russia, whose ‘bourgeoisie was such a miserable historical epigone that during the last few decades everything grand and important in all classes gravitated not to the bourgeoisie but to the workers’. History bore out the first part of his prophecy that, in consequence, ‘In Europe it will be incomparably more difficult for the proletariat to come to power, for the enemy is stronger; but when it does come to power it will be incomparably easier for it to build socialism, for it will receive a much larger inheritance. Greater culture, a greater development of technology.’ [14]

Russia was producing less than 500 newspapers with 2 million readers, while the US, with a population 20 million smaller, had 20,000 papers with a circulation of 250 million. It was necessary to work hard at bridging the cultural gap, and the government, untrammelled by bourgeois restrictions, would help. 57 per cent of people even in European Russia were illiterate – not to speak of the far more backward hinterland. Even those who could read were largely not very fluent and lacked the knowledge of which books to read and the skill to find them. ‘And since our reader cannot find his book, our book must find its reader. This is a librarian’s task!’ [15]

He goes on relentlessly urging the library workers to reach out to the working masses:

That library worker is not a library worker of a socialist country if he is simply in charge of a shelf of books and so does not manage to listen to the requests of his readers and serve as an organ of transmission of what he has heard to higher bodies – to bring pressure to bear on the writer and the publishers. [16]

The librarian thus becomes a shield and friendly intermediary between the awakened but yet unconfident reader and the bureaucracy. To assist the nervous new readers further a complaints bureau should be built in libraries where ‘every peasant, male or female – and first and foremost those who fear the Soviet official – will feel he can consult the librarian, the “izbach”, without feeling he will be let down or have a dirty trick played on him; a librarian who will advise him, write to a newspaper, make public his grievance, defend him’.

Trotsky engages the librarians’ feelings of solidarity by explaining:

To kill the feeling of defencelessness in a person crushed by centuries of hard labour means killing tyranny in the same stroke, and tyranny, it goes without saying, is incompatible with that regime which we are building but are still a long way from completing. [17]

The ‘izbach’ referred to above is a librarian running a village reading room in a hut. Trotsky looks to their wide proliferation to spread literacy among the peasants and Red Army men, and earnestly describes, in minutest detail, how the ‘izbach’, ‘having gathered around as many people as possible’, could with the newest issue of a newspaper, map on wall, reference book at hand, help and instruct the unlearned. Such a hut reading room will be an irreplaceable school of Leninism’. [18]

Trotsky deals in this amount of detail, and with great sympathy and understanding, with a host of everyday problems, seeking always the simplest way to activate the people involved, as workers or citizens, to make changes happen, where necessary against indifference at the higher official level.

On 18 October 1923 he wrote a piece called Big and Small.

The ‘Big’ was the German revolution just broken out and causing enormous excitement in Russia. The ‘Small’ was bothering about ‘everyday life’ and other day-to-day matters. To isolate each, dismissing one because of the importance of the other, was ‘to distort history, to make a living revolutionary tradition into an abstract canon’. [19]

Trotsky, in his person, was the living embodiment of ‘Big’ and ‘Small’.

It is natural that Trotsky, looking always at the progress of the most backward, the weakest, among the workers and peasants as the criterion for society’s advance towards socialism, should have particular regard for the well-being of the most downtrodden of Russia’s oppressed millions – women and children – and constantly seek ways of pulling them out of their age-old bondage through their own efforts and activity, aided by liberating government edicts. In all his exhortations to workers to actively work at changing conditions, the woman, or the mother and child, come in for particular attention.

A few quotations out of a rich multitude will indicate Trotsky’s attitude to women’s burdened past, the present possibilities, and the need for women themselves to take up the struggle for their future liberation:

A revolution does not deserve its name if with all its might and all the means at its disposal, it does not help the woman – twofold and threefold enslaved as she has been in the past to get out on the road of individual and social progress. [20]

How to evaluate a society?

The most accurate way of measuring our advance is by the practical measures which are being carried out for the improvement of the position of mother and child ... It will be possible to evaluate a human society by the attitude it has toward woman, toward the mother and toward the child. [21]

And not only evaluate:

In order to change the conditions of life we must learn to see them through the eyes of women. [22]

... woman is the coolie of the family ... it is impossible to move forward while leaving the woman far in the rear ... Just as it was impossible to approach the construction of the Soviet state without freeing the peasantry from the tangles of serfdom, so it is impossible to move to socialism without freeing the peasant woman and the woman worker from the bondage of family and household ... freeing from bondage the mother in penal servitude ... To build socialism means to emancipate women and protect mothers. [23]

While addressing the question of the liberation of all women, Trotsky pays particular attention to the most downtrodden.

The central task in the transformation of everyday life is the liberation of women, forced as they have been into the role of mere beasts of burden by the old conditions of the family, household and economy. In the East, in the countries of Islam, this task is imposed more acutely than anywhere else in the world. [24]

After stating the problem, Trotsky looks into ways of solving it. It needs to be understood that,

The problem of women’s emancipation, both material and spiritual, is closely tied to that of the transformation of family life. It is necessary to remove the bars from those confining and suffocating cages into which the present family structure drives women, turning her into a slave, if not a beast of burden.

He then shows the way towards liberation:

There are two paths leading to the transformation of everyday family life: from below and from above. ‘From below’ denotes the path of combining the resources and efforts of individual families, the path of building enlarged family units with kitchens, laundries, etc., in common. ‘From above’ denotes the path of initiative by the state or by local Soviets in building group workers’ quarters, communal restaurants, laundries, nurseries, etc. Between these two paths, in a workers’ and peasants’ state, there can be no contradiction; one ought to supplement the other ... The work must be carried on simultaneously both from above and from below. [25]

As in other fields he goes into great detail about possible ways of worker and peasant families building family group communities. Because both the material resources and the cultural level is so low, it is impossible to make large-scale changes. The only real way forward towards building these enlarged family units, is first for the families to create model communities which the state should assist: ‘The first and indisputable success in this direction, however slight and limited in extent, will inevitably arouse a desire in more widespread groups to organise their life on similar lines.’ This is step by step progress: ‘no rushing too far ahead or lapsing into bureaucratic fanciful experiments’. [26]

Women’s activity must address more general questions too, agitating against habits and customs that shackle.

Just as we have our army agitators, our industrial agitators, our anti-religious propagandists, so must we educate prop­agandists and agitators in questions of custom. As the women are the more helpless by their present limitations, and custom presses more heavily on their shoulders and backs, we may presume that the best agitators on these questions will come from their ranks. [27]

Gaining confidence in small matters of everyday life will lead to understanding and participating in big ones.

If we have touched her [a working woman] or can touch her with our cultural and domestic work, then we will construct for her a spiritual bridge from the individual to the social, and the German revolution will become for her a close and kindred thing.

Trotsky quotes the gospel to summarize his outlook: ‘Whoever is true in the small matters will also be true in the big.’ [28]

On Art and Literature

The second problem raised by the cultural debate concerned the desire to forge a new culture for the new ruling class, the proletariat.

Trotsky had written a number of essays on literary criticism even before the revolution. With the guns silent and the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, art revived. As part of the new mood, a number of Trotsky’s pre-revolutionary essays on literary criticism were to be republished in a special volume of his Works. In writing the preface during a summer vacation in 1922, Trotsky went far beyond his brief, expanding it into what became, when he managed to finish it in his next vacation in 1923, the book Literature and Revolution, a remarkable work of great erudition and insight, showing Trotsky, always a fine stylist, at his most brilliant. It relates all facets of art and literature to the supreme fact of life – the revolution – and the tasks of Russia’s new ruling class, the proletariat. Trotsky did not return to the subject of artistic creation in his writings until 1938, when he wrote a letter to the American Partisan Review called Art and Revolution.

Trotsky clarified and sharpened his ideas in the course of the fierce polemics taking place in the heated revolutionary atmosphere over the nature, purpose and destiny of literature and art under the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the role of the government and party towards art. In particular he took issue with the Proletkult movement, which paralleled the Military Opposition with its Proletarian Military Doctrine and movements in other spheres of life, such as those promoting ‘the struggle for a communist ethic’ and so on, claiming that the super-ceremonious christening of these societies did not mean that the advent of communism was drawing any closer, and that they merely adorned the rough preliminary work with false labels. [29] It is principally in the course of polemics against Proletkult that his ideas on the nature of art and society are drawn out, and these form a firm background for the struggle he conducted against the movement.

He takes up a number of the questions that perennially arise regarding the nature of art and society. If a work of art, he asks, is rooted in the ideology of a ruling class of long ago, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Florentine petty bourgeoisie of the thirteenth century, what makes it able to speak to and move us centuries later in very different class societies?

Trotsky explains that civilisation serves a double purpose: that of humanity growing and conquering nature; and that of division into classes. From the latter it is clear that some elements of the cultural heritage are discardable; from the former that some elements have common, universal features, such as feelings of love or fear of death, which are constant, though they may be differently expressed at different times. When they are expressed so powerfully that they throw into relief features common to people of all times of class society, they rise above the limitations of life in far-off times, enriching people’s internal life, refining feelings, generalising experience, helping people’s self-awareness and understanding of their position in the universe. That is what makes them speak across the centuries.

Another perennial problem he deals with is the connection between the individual artist and society. He starts with Marx’s dictum that ‘The mode of production in material life determines the social, political and intellectual life processes in general’. These processes are expressed by the individual. But if there is only individuality in a work of art, there is no purpose in interpreting it. Individuality in fact is the welding together of national, class, temporary and institutional elements. It is expressed in the uniqueness of the welding together, of the proportions of the psycho-chemical mixture of elements. Not only the individual artist, but the individual viewer or reader also has a unique, individual soul. The bridge between soul and soul is not the unique but the common. He puts it thus: Only through the common is the unique known’ [30] – a beautifully brief expression of the dialectical relationship between the individual artist and society.

It follows from art’s being a social servant that the artist cannot be ‘without a tendency’, that is, a definite relationship to social life, even if this is not expressed in political terms; a relationship created through the everyday cultural and ideological connection of the class and its artists. Bourgeois artists, for instance, breathed the air of the salons, receiving hypodermic inspiration from their class.

Does it then follow that propaganda art is art? Trotsky says that though art is a social servant, the artistic worth of propaganda art should not be exaggerated: it simplifies complex reality to present easy lessons. What raises propaganda to art is a work’s deep thought and feeling, rendering reality in all its complexity, whose ‘message’ is organic, not an obtrusive appendix. In later years he cites as worthy examples the novel Fontamara by the Italian Ignazione Silone and the paintings of Diego Rivera.

Trotsky always attested to the specificity of art and its incompatibility with compulsion, all the more emphatically after Stalin’s accession to power and the stifling of all but official propaganda. Even if art consciously serves a social movement, he claimed, it must be judged by its own law, the law of art. Art has to be approached as art, literature as literature, that is, as specific fields of human endeavour. The class criterion must be refracted artistically.

Art cannot tolerate orders, lies, hypocrisy, conformity. It can be an ally of the revolution only if it is faithful to itself, if it struggles for revolutionary truth, not in terms of any school, but of the ‘immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. ‘You shall not lie!’ – that is the formula for salvation.

Another requirement of art is abundance. For Trotsky art was the highest test of the vitality and significance of an epoch. Because it is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive, the most protected, it needs a rich soil.

‘Culture feeds on the sap of economics and a material surplus is necessary, so that culture may grove, develop and become subtle ... Art needs comfort, even abundance.

And in addition to material requirements, it needs a flexible atmosphere of sympathy.’ [31]

Art and revolution

The revolution caused a break in artistic development. The old world died with the October revolution, and the revival of art was possible only from the point of view of October. The whole of culture, from its economic base to its ideology, needed rebuilding after the civil war. Art alone could not do this; in fact all real art was silenced. ‘When the sound of weapons is heard the Muses fall silent’. With the best forces of the proletariat expended in the political and military struggle, the rebuilding was a revolutionary task, and the function of art, therefore, was entirely determined by its relation to the revolution. What this revolutionary task of rebuilding meant under the dictatorship of the proletariat was to hold the fort for the European and world revolution which were expected to triumph in the not too distant future. The Russian proletariat were soldiers in a military campaign:

Life in Revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere, even in names. Hence the difficulty of an artistic approach.

The difficulty was that the revolution could not be seen in parts, as episodes.

The transitory and the episodic have in them an element of the accidental and the accidental bears the stamp of insignificance. The Revolution, taken episodically, appears quite insignificant. [32]

It is like an ant which, crawling over a statue of Venus, cannot grasp its beauty but sees only the grooves and bumps. The revolution is only grand and mighty when seen in its entirety, with the objective historical tasks which are the goal of its leading forces.

All the agonies, sacrifices, blood, heroism and faith are justifiable only if the great historic event being born is seen. If this is missed, all that is seen is episodes marked by torn boots, lice, blood, but not a revolution.

The turmoil of artistic strivings, gropings and experiments made in this transitory period inevitably gives birth merely to sketches, études, rough drafts, many more unsuccessful than successful. But they have a tremendous innate importance, being imbued as never in the world before with one inspiration – the historic task of the revolution, which was the conscious, purposeful construction of a new socialist society.

Attitude to artistic groups

Trotsky evaluated the output of all the literary and artistic groups according to their relation to the revolution. The bourgeois artists of the pre-revolutionary period pretended nothing had happened, that the revolution did not concern them. Their outpourings were therefore like mere ‘scribblings in the complaint book of the Berlin Railway Station’ [33] (through which they mostly emigrated to the West).

The ‘fellow travellers’ – a term invented by Trotsky – were young artists moulded by the revolution, who accepted it as a great event in the history of the nation, but were not committed to the communist ideal. They therefore could not organically merge with the revolution, which they looked upon as an elemental power, but not as a purposeful process. Not subscribing to communism and the vanguard position of the working class, they turned to the peasantry; that is, they looked at the revolution from without, romanticising it while bewailing the torn boots and the cockroaches. The revolution is not, however, torn boots plus romanticism. With their ambivalent position, it was not clear whether their reconciliation to the revolution was the starting point of a move forward – or backward. There were facts enough for both, Trotsky says. After all, the peasantry looked both ways: they loved the Bolsheviks who gave them land, and hated the Communists who requisitioned their surpluses.

The fellow-travellers, leaning on the peasantry, also avoided the city. But the heart of the revolution was the city, and its task was planning, modernising the economy, uprooting village idiocy, enriching the personality and making it more complex – through electrification, not the peasant’s candle; through materialist philosophy, not woodland superstition and fatalism. Without the leadership of the city Russia would never get to socialism. It was the revolution’s peasant foundation and patchiness of culture that made it formless; it was the Bolshevik leadership that made it planful and finished. It was in a combination of these two extremes that the soul, the internal character, the poetry of the revolution lay. This clarity, however, was foreign to the fellow­-travellers, because the revolution displaced their organic axis and they lost their self-confident mastery of their art. Trotsky nevertheless, far from spurning them, considered their work useful as manure for the seeds of the new culture, and stoutly defended their right to free artistic expression, against vilification as bourgeois liberals of both the artists and of Trotsky himself for defending their right, by adherents of Proletkult.

The Futurists, by contrast, ardently supported the revolution and yearned to serve the new regime through their art, not by adorning life, but by helping to organise it. The best known of the Futurists was the poet Mayakovsky. Trotsky looked more sympathetically upon the Futurists. They had been rebels against the old order before October – albeit Bohemian rebels; they connected art with technology, they identified with Bolshevism and internationalism; and yet Trotsky was critical. He maintained that they showed contempt for the literary traditions of the past; they were in fact for a complete break with the past and the creation of a new proletarian culture. This Trotsky vehemently opposed, as we shall see below in his polemics with Proletkult.

Also, the Futurist poets, he says, were poets who became communists, not communists who became poets, and so were weakest when singing about communism. Again he stoutly defended their right freely to express themselves, and suggested they could be an important component of current output and a link to future socialist culture.

Trotsky’s whole general approach to art and literature argued against the line of Proletkult. He also aimed his barbs specifically at the movement in what was his greatest cultural polemic.

Proletkult organised around a journal of that name on urban, district and factory levels, running literary workshops as well as special sections devoted to poetry, theatre and music. It had a wide measure of support after the revolution, encompassing most of the Futurists and many leading figures in the Bolshevik Party, like Bukharin and Lunacharsky. It appealed to young workers who thirsted for knowledge but were iconoclastic. It insisted on autonomy from Narkompros, the Commissariat of Enlightenment, and set up its own parallel institutions to the government ones.

The fiercest opponents of Proletkult were Lenin and Trotsky.

The reasoning behind the Proletkult attitude was spelled out by Bogdanov, who was its principal theoretician, a person with whom Lenin had long had ideological differences and who was expelled from the Bolshevik Party in 1909.

Bogdanov argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat advanced along three parallel but distinct lines: political, economic and cultural. Its political organ was the party, its economic organ the trade unions, and its cultural organ Proletkult. The economic and political struggles had succeeded in October 1917, but the revolution would not be complete until the cultural revolution succeeded with the construction of proletarian culture. This dictated a specific, organisationally independent form of struggle, particularly as culture was the last refuge of the bourgeoisie in retreat.

The same culture cannot serve different regimes, said Proletkult. The old bourgeoisie had its own culture, the victorious proletariat must build its own, have its own ‘class art’ as an organising force in the struggle for socialism. The bourgeois culture of Western civilisation was alien to this struggle. It was the very opposite of proletarian culture, which was based on Marxist class consciousness, internationalism, materialism, atheism; and western culture was therefore completely inadmissible for proletarian cultural expression. Bukharin, for instance, thought that the party should have its specific line ‘in all fields of ideological and scientific life, even in mathematics’. [34]

Art was not only conditioned by its social environment, in this instance the workers’ state, but could in its turn condition and organise the experience of the masses, mobilizing them to action to transform society. It was to this end that Proletkult set up the institutions parallel to but independent of Narkompros, where ordinary workers could practice and forward the development of proletarian culture and proletarian artists could be employed.

The new proletarian culture would be based on social labour and comradely collaboration which would become common to mankind in the future classless society.

Proletkult covered a spectrum of outlooks, particularly in the attitude to the preservation of the culture of the past and the use of specialists. One extreme claimed that all past bourgeois culture had nothing of any worth at all (except in natural science and technological skills), and were impatient to destroy it and create a new proletarian culture immediately. They therefore, like their parallel movement in the armed forces, the Military Opposition, opposed any co-operation with bourgeois specialists who were incapable of serving the interests of the proletariat. Speed was therefore of the essence. The cultural revolution must be accomplished here and now.

Not all the adherents of Proletkult supported the destruction of the past heritage. Bukharin did not, and even Bogdanov understood that the proletariat could not afford entirely to reject the bourgeois culture of the past, and would need to retain the collectivist elements within it.

On the question of the use of bourgeois specialists, Lenin and Trotsky had to refight the battle they had joined with the Military Opposition over the appointment of pre-revolutionary officers and other specialists in the army, from whom the Red Army soldiers had to ‘learn to learn’, even though they had been their enemies. [35] Lenin was forthright:

The Communist who has failed to prove his ability to bring together and guide the work of specialists in a spirit of modesty, is a potential menace. We have many such Communists among us, and I would gladly swap dozens of them for one conscientious qualified specialist. [36]

Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment, supported Lenin and Trotsky in this. He considered the training and experience lodged in the bourgeois specialists to be necessary ‘instruments of labour’. And in fact he played the prime role in convincing bourgeois actors, artists, engineers, playwrights, poets, professors, scientists and teachers to accept and work for the new government.

In the heated debates around proletarian culture in the early 1920s Lenin and Trotsky came out implacably against the movement. Already in 1919 Lenin had proclaimed a ‘relentless hostility ... to all inventions of intellectuals, to all “proletarian cultures”’: [37]

Proletarian culture is not something that suddenly springs from nobody knows where, and is not invented by people who set up as specialists in proletarian culture. Proletarian culture is the regular development of those stores of knowledge which mankind has worked out for itself under the yoke of capitalist society, of feudal society, of bureaucratic society. [38]

Trotsky elaborated on this theme. There was bourgeois class culture and socialist classless culture, but not proletarian culture. Proletarian culture could in no sense be equated with bourgeois culture. The bourgeoisie owned both physical and mental means of production within feudal society centuries before the bourgeois revolutions and their acquisition of state power. They possessed the comfort and abundance necessary for art to grow and become subtle.

The condition of the working class on taking power was the very opposite. It had never owned either the physical or mental means of production within the old society, and emerged from it propertyless, exploited, uneducated – in complete cultural pauperism. It therefore could in no way inaugurate a new and significant phase in the development of the human mind.

In addition the proletariat was not granted the luxury of the centuries-long gestation of class rule like the bourgeoisie. For a workers’ state to survive it needed the world socialist revolution, and this, according to Trotsky, involved decades, not centuries, during which transitional period its energies would be taken up by fierce class struggles internationally, which were political rather than cultural. The more the proletariat succeeded and the conditions for cultural creation became favourable, the closer the proletariat would be to ceasing to be a proletariat and dissolving into the socialist community.

The aim of bourgeois revolutions was to perpetuate the domination of the bourgeoisie. The aim of the proletarian revolution was to dissolve the proletariat in a classless society as quickly as possible.

Trotsky argued further that culture is created when the intelligentsia of the class and the class itself interact, as was the case in the bourgeois salons. This fusion was even more vital for the proletariat than the bourgeoisie, as proletarian culture would be based on the creative activity of the masses, not a distinct elite stratum of artists. But the backwardness of the proletariat placed an insuperable obstacle before the fusion of the artists with their class. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the proletariat came to power only with the need to take possession of its cultural heritage, because it had none of its own. This resulted in the unfortunate necessity to promote a special stratum of cultural workers not organically linked with the class.

The demand for today’s proletariat to break with tradition sounds hollow when,

addressed to the working class which does not need and cannot break with any literary tradition because it is not in the grip of any such tradition.

He adds: ‘We Marxists have always lived in tradition and we have not because of this ceased to be revolutionaries.’

The proletariat’s task is to take over the tradition, commune with it, absorb it and in that way transcend it. The task of the revolution is not creating culture but bearing culture to the backward masses.

Trotsky also pointed out the danger of Proletkult’s iconoclastic haste, as art matured slowly and needed time to blossom. The different metaphors he uses to make the point are striking: ‘The nightingale of poetry, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set.’ ‘The political writing of the class hastens ahead on stilts while its artistic creativity hobbies behind on crutches’. ‘The mind limps after reality’. [39] He explains why:

Unlike in politics, in artistic creation an enormous role is played by subconscious processes – slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance, just because they are subconscious.

Lenin also pointed to the lag, indirectly criticising a central plank of Proletkult: ‘the cultural task cannot be discharged as rapidly as the political and military tasks’. [40] Time, therefore, is of the essence for the blossoming of art.

Trotsky argued, therefore, that,

It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human. [41]

What there was – the strivings and experiments – was the proletariat putting its stamp on art, breaking up the ground, preparing it for sowing. But that was a far cry from proletarian culture in the sense of a harmonious system of knowledge. The products of pre- and post-October socialist poets were revolutionary documents, political events, not literary ones. The ‘inartistic doggerel’ that abounded was not new literature. Proletkult says: give us something even pock-marked, but our own. Trotsky decries this: pock-marked art is not art, therefore not necessary for the masses. Shakespeare’s works one day will be only historical documents, also Capital, but not yet. We still recommend them to the workers.

The danger of Proletkult was that it compressed the future into the narrow limits of today, falsified perspectives, violated proportions, distorted standards, cultivated the arrogance of small circles. All such quests for a philosopher’s stone combined despair at our cultural deficiency with a faith in miracles. There is no reason to despair, he says, neither are there miracles.

Bukharin and Lunacharsky claimed Trotsky pessimistically considered the dictatorship of the proletariat as a cultural vacuum; the present as a sterile hiatus between a creative past and a creative future. [42] Trotsky in fact considered the international revolution imminent, at which time Russia would no longer need to pull itself up by its own bootstraps and the emergence of a classless society would herald the possibility of creating a socialist culture. Russia was holding the fort, and its cultural ferment preparing the ground and putting down markers for this eventuality. Stalin and Bukharin, his ideologue of ‘socialism in one country’ – and with it a ‘snail’s pace’ gestation of the international revolution – could not intellectually tolerate a barren epoch which denied the new bureaucracy omnipotence in all fields including culture. They therefore forced the future into the present, conjuring up a proletarian culture in the here and now, and by-passing history on their way to Utopia.

It is interesting to note that the Communist Party – which had constantly resisted taking sides in the literary disputes, and desired nothing better than to tolerate all the conflicting groups and schools, subject only to the condition of loyalty to the revolution and to the regime, after the proclamation of the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ in December 1925, tilted over in early 1926 to a renunciation of neutrality and a positive attitude to taking decisions about artistic matters – a victory for the view that art and literature were inseparable from politics [43] and a development much approved by Proletkult, which hoped to be and was in fact the recipient of party favour until it was crushed under the dull thud of Socialist Realism’s heavy boots in the mid-1930s.

Party attitude to art

Trotsky had a very libertarian attitude to the party’s position regarding artistic development. The party could take a position on the political use of art, that is, whether it was pro- or counter-revolutionary, and try to help groups grasp the meaning of the revolution. But it could not rule on its development, its struggle for new forms. Art demanded freedom, it could not tolerate orders. And on this basis the party did indeed permit very extensive freedom in the field of art.

Also the party did not regard as revolutionary and legitimate only that art that spoke to workers of their lives, such as a description of a factory chimney, or a rising against capital. The imagination needed to be lifted by a new lyric poetry. What the party should say to the poet is: ‘Please write about anything you can think of!’ In the depths of reaction, in 1938, Trotsky could boldly say:

If, for the better development of material production the Revolution must build a Socialist regime with centralised control, to develop intellectual creation an Anarchist regime of individual liberty should from the first be established. No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above! [44]

He ends a Manifesto Towards of Revolutionary Art written in 1938 (with André Breton) with the slogans:

The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art! [45]

Nor will revolutionary art be created only by workers, especially as they would be too busy fighting the class struggle. The fellow-travellers were helpers, not competitors.

The party illuminates the road, but art must make its own way. It was not possible early on to estimate the place of any group, so the party must pay attention to every artistic talent that was not counter-revolutionary and wait patiently. This attitude dictated that while Trotsky fiercely opposed Proletkult, he as fiercely defended its right to exist.

Science and society

As part of the overall cultural debate Trotsky followed his critique of artistic creativity with an incursion into an evaluation of the new society’s relation to science, which he described as the ‘knowledge that endows us with power’ [46], and hence ‘the most important lever of culture’. [47] Science had been a youthful interest of his, which he abandoned for the sake of political activity, but renewed when this activity landed him, after he resigned in 1925 as Commissar of War, in the post of head of the Board for Electro-Technical Development of the Committee for Industry and Technology.

With the scientists, Trotsky considered his task for the most part the opposite of that in the literary and artistic debate. In the latter he felt obliged to take to task the over-eager, impatient young revolutionary poets and artists whose iconoclasm sought to largely destroy the pre-revolutionary heritage in favour of ambitious ‘proletarian’-inspired projects of dubious artistic or cultural value, and imbue them with the knowledge of the masses’ need not to smash the past but to absorb it to enrich their present endeavours.

While he did rehearse the same arguments against Proletkult for the benefit of those – and there were some, though far fewer than in the artistic fraternity – who believed in a specifically ‘proletarian’ science, this was not his main aim when dealing with the scientists, for they were by and large not youthful products of the revolution, but bourgeois specialists who stayed and worked for the new regime.

Scientists’ practical work constantly proved the veracity of dialectical materialism, yet most of them failed to recognise this and opposed the ideas of Marxism ideologically. Trotsky therefore sat at their feet for the study of different branches of science, but felt obliged to act as their tutor when it came to locating science in the broader philosophic ambiance. So to the scientists he expounded the philosophy and sociology of Marxism.

After all, the definition of science, according to Mendeleyev, the most eminent Russian scientist was: to know so that we may foresee and act. And, taking Mendeleyev as an example, Trotsky shows how, in drawing up his Periodic Table of the Elements, based securely on materialist thinking and research on atomic weights, he brilliantly foresaw the existence of hitherto undiscovered elements. He,

knocked at one of nature’s hitherto closed doors, and from within a voice answered: “Present!” Actually, three voices responded simultaneously, for in the places indicted by Mendeleyev there were discovered three new elements. A marvellous triumph for thought, analytical and synthesizing! [48]

Yet this same Mendeleyev, so knowledgeable and far-seeing in chemical scientific research, was clueless in social scientific matters. His chemical prediction was made in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune. Far from analysing the causes or motives of this great social upheaval, he was simply hostile, and it fell to the German exile Karl Marx to shed the light of scientific dialectical materialism on this social event, whose rays penetrated through to the actions of the Russian October and beyond.

While trying to draw the scientists out of the parochialism of science in general by looking at social development too in a scientific Marxist way, Trotsky was careful to avoid some Marxists’ attempts ‘to transmute the theory of Marx into a universal master key and ignore all other spheres of learning’. Trotsky remembers that if anyone did this in Lenin’s presence,

Vladimir Ilyich would rebuke him with the expressive phrase ‘Komchvanstvo’ (‘communist swagger’). This would mean in this particular case – communism is not a substitute for chemistry. But the converse theorem is also true. An attempt to dismiss Marxism with the supposition that chemistry (or the natural sciences in general) is able to decide all questions is a peculiar ‘chemist swagger’, which in point of theory is no less erroneous and in point of fact no less pretentious than communist swagger. [49]

Just as he had earlier pointed to the specificity of art as a particular field of human endeavour, so he points to the specificity of the different branches of science: ‘each science covers a particular field, ie., a field of complex combinations of elementary phenomena and laws that require a special approach, special research technique, special hypotheses and methods.’ [50]

Trotsky thus aimed for the scientists to combine ‘professional specialization with an all-encompassing synthesis of the processes and problems of our life and work.’ [51]

Results and Prospects

Isaac Deutscher recounts the fate of Trotsky’s cultural critique of the mid-1920s:

The whole ‘Trotskyist’ conception of culture and art soon came under fire. It offended the half-educated party man by its very breadth and complexity. It outraged the bureaucrat to whom it denied the right to control and regiment intellectual life. It also antagonised the ultra-revolutionary literary sects whose pretensions it refused to accept. Thus a fairly wide anti-Trotskyist ‘front’ formed itself in the cultural field; and it was kept in being, reinforced, and eventually absorbed by the political front. The struggle against Trotsky’s influence as a literary critic became part of the endeavour to destroy his political authority; and so his opponents declared his views on art to be part and parcel of the wider Trotskyist heresy. [52]

Far from the pessimism he was accused of by Bukharin and others, Trotsky evinced an eternal optimism about the future of socialism, even in the darkest days of Stalinism and his own persecution. With his deep understanding of historical materialism and sensitive feeling for artistic creativity, he conjured up a prophetic vision of future socialist society, with which he ends Literature and Revolution. Solidarity will be the basis of society:

All the emotions which we revolutionaries, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming – so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians – such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbour, sympathy, will be the mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry. [53]

With political struggle eliminated (because of the elimination of classes), and three or four hours of labour per day sufficient to satisfy all material needs, the powerful force of competition – in bourgeois society market competition – will assume higher forms: struggle for one’s opinion, one’s project, one’s taste.

Collective interests and individual competition – which will have a profoundly ideal and unselfish character – will give rise to opposing tendencies in all spheres. There will be struggles over, for instance, a new canal, the distribution of oases in the Sahara, regulation of the climate, pedagogical systems, new theatres, chemical hypotheses, competing tendencies in music, best systems of sports. The human personality will grow into full bloom.

Art will become the most perfect method of the progressive building of life in every field. The walls will come down between art and industry, between art and nature. People will reorganise nature, relocating mountains and rivers, improving on nature, rebuilding the earth according to their own taste. There will also be a redistribution of humanity. The city will dissolve and the village rise to the plane of the city.

Then people will also refashion themselves through collective experiment, subjecting physical, subconscious and psychological processes to the control of reason. Literature and Revolution ends with the words:

The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.


1. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, New York 1973, p.53.

2. Quoted in C. Rosenberg, Education and Society, London n.d., p.23.

3. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, pp.50-1.

4. Ibid., p.171.

5. Ibid..

6. Ibid., p.71.

7. Ibid., p.61.

8. Ibid., p.71.

9. Ibid., p.59, my emphasis.

10. Ibid., p.50.

11. Ibid., p.51.

12. Ibid., p.52.

13. Ibid., p.143.

14. Ibid., pp.146-7.

15. Ibid., p.149.

16. Ibid., p.153.

17. Ibid., p.154.

18. Ibid., p.157.

19. Ibid., p.131.

20. Ibid., p.53.

21. Trotsky, Women and the Family, New York 1970, pp.45, 42.

22. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p.65.

23. Trotsky, Women and the Family, pp.43, 48, 45.

24. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p.79.

25. Trotsky, Women and the Family, pp.29-30.

26. Ibid., p.28.

27. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p.70.

28. Ibid., p.132.

29. Ibid., p.173.

30. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, Ann Arbor 1971, p.60.

31. Ibid., pp.9-10.

32. Ibid., p.77.

33. Ibid., p.24.

34. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.1, London 1958, p.80.

35. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.2, p.234.

36. C. Claudin-Urondo, Lenin and the Cultural Revolution, Hassocks 1977, p.56n.

37. Lenin, Sochineniia, xxiv, p.305, Quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.1, p.50.

38. Lenin, Sochineniia, xxv, p.409, 636, 637, quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.1, p.51.

39. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p.19.

40. Lenin, Sochineniia, xxvii, p.51; quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.1, p.50.

41. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p.14.

42. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, p.198.

43. Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.2, p.87.

44. Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, New York 1970, p.119.

45. Ibid., p.121.

46. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p.210.

47. Ibid., p.200.

48. Ibid., p.211.

49. Ibid., p.221.

50. Ibid., p.214.

51. Ibid., p.201.

52. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, p.198.

53. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p.230.

Last updated on 5 August 2009