Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art

From the compiler

The Soviet Republic’s first People’s Commissar of Education, a trusted friend of Lenin, one of the new society’s most eminent ideologists, a scientist, journalist, and outstanding public speaker, a dazzlingly erudite person – such was Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (1873-1933).

Lunacharsky’s passionate, at times impulsive, character embodied a number of significant evolutionary features of a whole generation of the Russian intellectuals – a generation whose aspirations to help the people in its struggle for freedom remained a spiritual compass which, through all the storms and tempests of history, through all the twists and turns of their own characteristic individualism, led them to an awareness of their position in life. Throughout the epoch of the proletarian revolution – only Marxism was able to provide such an understanding of history and such a realisation of one’s place and part in it. Lenin, with his works and personal influence, played a most important part in helping Lunacharsky to correct his ideological errors and misconceptions. Lunacharsky rightly said of himself and his generation: “No matter how much slag and mistakes there are in what we have done, we are proud of our role in history and face the judgement of future generations without fear, without a shadow of doubt as to their verdict.”

The last outstanding critic of Russian pre-revolutionary culture, and the first brilliant critic of socialist culture, Lunacharsky lived at a time when the art of the old Russian society was already history and that of a new world was being born. As a critic, Lunacharsky seemed to link these two cultural worlds. Both the line of aesthetical continuity and the break with accepted aesthetical tradition passed through Lunacharsky’s “critical heart.” This heart retained all that the world’s greatest artists had given; but it also harboured dreams of the unprecedented beauty of the art of the future.

Lunacharsky left behind a truly splendid heritage. The sphere of the creative interests of this “exceptionally gifted personality,” as Lenin put it, was extraordinarily versatile. Lunacharsky wrote about fifteen hundred articles on various questions of classical and contemporary literature, painting, music and sculpture. He wrote a series of lectures on the history of Russian and West European literature, works on literary and aesthetical problems, papers on the most important problems of contemporary art and politics, brilliant essays dedicated to almost every celebrated artist the world has known. Lunacharsky’s works, which appeared literally one after another in the twenties and thirties and were a significant factor in the cultural life of the young Soviet society, included his recorded lectures, impromptu speeches noted down by newspaper reporters and introductions to new editions.

The present edition, which contains only a fraction of his critical articles, can claim to give no more than the most general idea of Lunacharsky’s critical heritage, of the nature of his critical gifts and of the breadth of his cultural interests. These articles have been chosen not only for the universal cultural significance of the personalities discussed in them, but also for the way in which the critic’s own personality is revealed. The book consists of three parts, in which Lunacharsky is shown as theoretician and ideologist, as a critic of Russian art, and as a critic of foreign art. Dates of the writing of the articles are given, but when not available, dates of first publication are provided.

Many of Lunacharsky’s significant, large-scale theoretical works, including Lenin and Literary Scholarship and courses of lectures on Russian and foreign art, have not been included here owing to lack of space; neither have his early critical speeches been included. The compiler has never considered abbreviating any of the articles published here, or publishing extracts from these articles. This is not merely because Lunacharsky’s articles represent in themselves a unique manifestation of art: the “spirit of the times” is organically revealed in Lunacharsky’s works, and very often a fleeting remark about some fact or other in the social life of those years turns out to be an essential detail which recreates in our minds the epoch that gave us Lunacharsky.