Leon Trotsky

Class and Art

Culture Under the Dictatorship

(May 1924)

Delivered: May 9, 1924. Speech during discussion at the Press Department of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) on Party Policy in the Field of Imaginative Literature.
Publisher: New Park, London, September 1974, ISBN 0 902030 10 8. Reprinted from Fourth International of July 1967.
Source: Voprosy Kul’tury Pri Diktatura Proletariata [Problems of Culture under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat] (1925), pp. 93–110.
Translated: Brian Pearce.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive, 2002.
Transcribed: Robert Barrois.
HTML Markup: David Walters.
Proofread: Jay Blackwood (April 2021).

Trotsky: It seems to me that it is Comrade Raskolnikov who has given most distinctive expression here to the point of view of the Na Postu group – you can’t get away from that, comrades of the Na Postu group! After a long absence, Raskolnikov spoke here with all the freshness of Afghanistan, whereas the other Na Postu people, having tasted a little of the tree of knowledge, tried to cover their nakedness – except Comrade Vardin, however, who goes on living the way he was born. (Vardin: “Why, you didn’t hear what I said here!”) True, I arrived late. But, first, I read your article in the last issue of Na Postu; secondly, I have just glanced through the verbatim record of your speech; and, thirdly, it must be said that one can tell beforehand, without listening to you, what you are going to say. (Laughter)

But to return to Comrade Raskolnikov. He says: they recommend the “fellow-travellers” to us, but did the old, pre-war Pravda or Zvezda print the words of Artsybashev, Leonid Andreyev and others whom now they would certainly call “fellow-travellers”? There is an example of a fresh approach to the question, not spoilt by any reflections. What are Artsybashev and Andreyev doing here? So far as I know, nobody has called them “fellow-travellers”. Leonid Andreyev died in a state of epileptic hatred of soviet Russia. Artsybashev was not so long ago simply pushed over the frontier. One can’t muddle things up in such a shameless way! What is a “fellow-traveller”? In literature as in politics we call by this name someone who, stumbling and staggering, goes up to a certain point along the same road which we shall follow much further. Whoever goes against us is not a fellow-traveller but an enemy, whom if necessary we will deport, for the well-being of the revolution is our highest law. How can you mix up Leonid Andreyev in this question of “fellow-travellers”? (Raskolnikov: “Well, but what about Pilnyak?”) If you are going to talk about Artsybashev when you mean Pilnyak, there’s no arguing with you. (Laughter. A shout: “But aren’t they the same thing?”) What do you mean: aren’t they the same thing? If you name names, you must stick to them. Pilnyak may be good or bad, in this way or that he may be good or he may be bad – but Pilnyak is Pilnyak, and you must talk about him as Pilnyak, and not as Leonid Andreyev. Knowledge in general begins with distinguishing between things and appearances, and not with chaotic confusion. Raskolnikov says: “We didn’t invite ‘fellow-travellers’ into the pages of Zvezda and Pravda, but sought and found poets and writers in the depths of the proletariat.” Sought and found! In the depths of the proletariat! But what did you do with them? Why have you hidden them from us? (Raskolnikov: “There is, for instance, Demyan Bedny.”) Oh, well now, that I didn’t know, I must confess – that we discovered Demyan Bedny in the depths of the proletariat. (General laughter) You see with what methods we are approaching the problem of literature: we speak of Leonid Andreyev, and we mean Pilnyak, we boast that we have found writers and poets in the depths of the proletariat, and then when we call the roll, out of these “depths” there answers only Demyan Bedny. (Laughter) This won’t do. This is frivolity. Much more seriousness is needed in considering this matter.

Let us try, indeed, to look more seriously at those pre-revolutionary workers’ publications, newspapers and periodicals, which have been mentioned here. We all remember that they used to carry some verses devoted to the struggle, to May Day, and so on. All these verses, such as they were, constituted very important and significant documents in the history of culture. They expressed the revolutionary awakening and political growth of the working class. In this cultural-historical sense their importance was no less than that of the works of all the Shakespeares, Molières and Pushkins in the world. In these feeble verses was the pledge of a new and higher human culture which the awakened masses will create when they have mastered the elements of the old culture. But, all the same, the workers’ verses in Zvezda and Pravda do not at all signify the rise of a new, proletarian literature. Inartistic doggerel in the Derzhavin (or pre-Derzhavin) style cannot be regarded as a new literature, although those thoughts and feelings which sought expression in these verses also belong to a writer who is beginning to appear from the working-class milieu. It is wrong to suppose that the development of literature is an unbroken chain, in which the naïve, though sincere, doggerel of young workers at the beginning of this century is the first link in the coming “proletarian literature”. In reality, these revolutionary verses were a political event, not a literary one. They contributed not to the growth of literature but to the growth of the revolution. The revolution led to the victory of the proletariat, the victory of the proletariat is leading to the transformation of the economy. The transformation of the economy is in process of changing the cultural state of the working masses. And the cultural growth of the working people will create the real basis for a new art. “But it is impossible to permit duality,” Comrade Raskolnikov tells us. “It is necessary that in our publications political writing and poetry should form one whole; Bolshevism is distinguished by monolithicity,” and so on. At first sight this reasoning seems irrefutable. Actually, it is an empty abstraction. At best it is a pious but unreal wish for something good. Of course it would be splendid if we had, to supplement our Communist political writing, the Bolshevik world-outlook expressed in artistic form. But we haven’t, and that is not accidental. The heart of the matter is that artistic creativity, by its very nature, lags behind the other modes of expression of a man’s spirit, and still more of the spirit of a class. It is one thing to understand something and express it logically, and quite another thing to assimilate it organically, reconstructing the whole system of one’s feelings, and to find a new kind of artistic expression for this new entity. The latter process is more organic, slower, more difficult to subject to conscious influence – and in the end it will always lag behind. The political writing of a class hastens ahead on stilts, while its artistic creativity hobbles along behind on crutches. Marx and Engels were great political writers of the proletariat in the period when the class was still not really awakened. (From the meeting: “Yes, you’re right there.”) I am very grateful to you. (Laughter) But take the trouble to draw the necessary conclusions from this, and understand why there is not this monolithicity between political writing and poetry, and this will in turn help you to understand why in the old legal Marxist periodicals we always found ourselves in a bloc, or semi-bloc, with artistic “fellow-travellers”, sometimes very dubious and even plainly false ones. You remember, of course, Novoye Slovo, the best of the old legal Marxist periodicals, in which many Marxists of the older generation collaborated including Vladimir Ilyich. This periodical, as everyone knows, was friendly with the Decadents. What was the reason for that? It was because the Decadents were then a young and persecuted tendency in bourgeois literature. And this persecuted situation of theirs impelled them to take sides with our attitude of opposition, though the latter, of course, was quite different in character, in spite of which the Decadents were temporarily fellow-travellers with us. And later Marxist periodicals (and the semi-Marxist ones, it goes without saying), right down to Prosveshcheniye, had no sort of “monolithic” fiction section, but set aside considerable space for the “fellow-travellers”. Some might be either more severe or more indulgent in this respect, but it was impossible to carry on a “monolithic” policy in the field of art, because the artistic elements needed for such a policy were lacking.

But Raskolnikov at bottom doesn’t want this. In works of art he ignores that which makes them works of art. This was most vividly shown in his remarkable judgement on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which in his opinion is valuable to us just because it enables us to understand the psychology of a certain class at a certain time. To put the matter that way means simply to strike out the Divine Comedy – from the realm of art. Perhaps the time has come to do that, but if so we must understand the essence of the question and not shrink from the conclusions. If I say that the importance of the Divine Comedy lies in the fact that it gives me an understanding of the state of mind of certain classes in a certain epoch, this means that I transform it into a mere historical document, for, as a work of art, the Divine Comedy must speak in some way to my feelings and moods. Dante’s work may act on me in a depressing way, fostering pessimism and despondency in me, or, on the contrary, it may rouse, inspire, encourage me. This is the fundamental relationship between a reader and a work of art. Nobody, of course, forbids a reader to assume the role of a researcher and approach the Divine Comedy as merely an historical document. It is clear, though, that these two approaches are on two different levels, which, though connected, do not overlap. How is it thinkable that there should be not an historical but a directly aesthetic relationship between us and a medieval Italian book? This is explained by the fact that in class society, in spite of all its changeability, there are certain common features. Works of art developed in a medieval Italian city can, we find, affect us too. What does this require? A small thing: it requires that these feelings and moods shall have received such broad, intense, powerful expression as to have raised them above the limitations of the life of those days. Dante was, of course, the product of a certain social milieu. But Dante was a genius. He raised the experience of his epoch to a tremendous artistic height. And if we, while today approaching other works of medieval literature merely as objects of study, approach the Divine Comedy as a source of artistic perception, this happens not because Dante was a Florentine petty bourgeois of the 13th century but, to a considerable extent, in spite of that circumstance. Let us take, for instance, such an elementary psychological feeling as fear of death. This feeling is characteristic not only of man but also of animals. In man it first found simple articulate expression, and later also artistic expression. In different ages, in different social milieux, this expression has changed, that is to say, men have feared death in different ways. And nevertheless what was said on this score not only by Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, but also by the Psalmist, can move us. (Exclamation by Comrade Libedinsky) Yes, yes, I came in at the very moment when you, Comrade Libedinsky, were explaining to Comrade Voronsky in the terms of elementary political instruction (you yourself put it like that) about the variation in feelings and states of mind in different classes. In that general form it is indisputable. However, for all that, you won’t deny that Shakespeare and Byron somehow speak to your soul and mine. (Libedinsky: “They will soon stop speaking.”) Whether it will be soon, I don’t know, but undoubtedly a time will come when people will approach the works of Shakespeare and Byron in the same way as we approach most poets of the Middle Ages, that is, exclusively from the standpoint of scientific-historical analysis. Even sooner, however, will come the time when people will stop seeking in Marx’s Capital for precepts for their practical activity, and Capital will have become merely an historical document, together with the program of our party. But at present we do not yet intend to put Shakespeare, Byron, Pushkin in the archives, and we will continue to recommend them to the workers. Comrade Sosnovsky, for instance, strongly recommends Pushkin, declaring that he will undoubtedly last another fifty years. Let us not speak of periods of time. But in what sense can we recommend Pushkin to a worker? There is no proletarian class viewpoint in Pushkin, not to speak of a monolithic expression of Communist feelings. Of course, Pushkin’s language is magnificent – that cannot be denied – but, after all, this language is used by him for expressing the world-outlook of the nobility. Shall we say to the worker: read Pushkin in order to understand how a nobleman, a serf-owner and gentleman of the bed chamber, encountered Spring and experienced Autumn? This element is, of course, present in Pushkin, for Pushkin grew up on a particular social basis. But the expression that Pushkin gave his feelings is so saturated with the artistic, and generally with the psychological, experience of centuries, is so crystallized, that it has lasted down to our times and, according to Comrade Sosnovsky, will last another fifty years. And when people tell me that the artistic significance of Dante for us consists in his expressing the way of life of a certain epoch, that only makes one spread one’s hands in helplessness. I am sure that many, like me, would, after reading Dante, have to strain their memories to remember the date and place of his birth, and yet none the less, this would not have prevented us from getting artistic delight, if not from the whole of the Divine Comedy then at least from some parts of it. Since I am not a historian of the Middle Ages, my attitude to Dante is predominantly artistic. (Ryazanov: “That’s an exaggeration. ‘To read Dante is to take a bath in the sea’, said Shevyryev, who was also against history, replying to Byelinsky.”) I don’t doubt that Shevyryev did express himself as Comrade Ryazanov says, but I am not against history – that’s pointless. Of course the historical approach to Dante is legitimate and necessary and affects our aesthetic attitude to him, but one can’t substitute one for the other. I remember what Kareyev wrote on this point, in a polemic with the Marxists: let them, the Marxides (that was how they ironically spoke of the Marxists in those days) tell us, for instance, what class interests dictated the Divine Comedy. And from the other side, the Italian Marxist, old Antonio Labriola, wrote something like this: “Only fools could try to interpret the text of the Divine Comedy as though it were made of the cloth that Florentine merchants provided for their customers.” I remember this expression almost word for word because in the polemic with the subjectivists I had occasion to quote these words more than once, in the old days. I think that Comrade Raskolnikov’s attitude not only to Dante but to art in general proceeds not from the Marxist criterion but from that of the late Shulyatikov, who provided a caricature of Marxism in this connection. Antonio Labriola also made his vigorous comment on this sort of caricature.

“By proletarian literature I understand literature which looks at the world with the eyes of the vanguard,” and so on, and so on. This is the opinion of Comrade Lelevich. Splendid, we are ready to accept his definition. Give us though, not only the definition but, also the literature. Where is it? Show us it! (Lelevich: Komsomolia – there is the best of recent times.”) What times? (A voice: “The last year.”) Well, all right, the last year. I don’t want to speak polemically. My attitude to Bezymensky has nothing in it that can be called negative, I hope. I praised Komsomolia highly when I read it in manuscript. But regardless of whether we can on this account proclaim the appearance of proletarian literature, I can say that Bezymensky would not exist as an artist if we did not have Mayakovsky, Pasternak and even Pilnyak. (A voice: “That proves nothing.”) This does prove, at least, that the artistic creativity of a given epoch is a very complex web which is not woven automatically, by discussion groups and seminars, but comes into being through complex interrelations, in the first place with the different fellow-travelling groups. You can’t get away from that; Bezymensky doesn’t try to, and he does well not to. In some of his works, the influence of “fellow-travellers” is even too noticeable. But this is an unavoidable phenomenon of youth and growth. And here we have Comrade Libedinsky, the enemy of “fellow-travellers”, and himself an imitator of Pilnyak and even Byely. Yes, yes, Comrade Averbach must excuse me; I see him shaking his head, though without much conviction. Libedinsky’s last story, Zavtra [Tomorrow] is like the diagonal of a parallelogram, one side of which is Pilnyak and the other Andrei Byely. In itself that’s no misfortune – Libedinsky can’t be born in the land of Na Postu as a ready-made writer. (Voice: “It’s a very barren land.”) I have already spoken about Libedinsky, after the first appearance of his Nedelya [The Week]. Bukharin then, as you will recall, fervently praised it, out of the expansiveness and kindness of his nature, and this praise alarmed me. Meanwhile I was obliged to observe the extreme dependence of Comrade Libedinsky on those very writers – “fellow-travellers” and semi-fellow-travellers – whom he and his co-thinkers all curse in Na Postu. You see once more that art and political writing are not always monolithic. I have no intention of giving up Comrade Libedinsky as a bad job on that account. I think that it is clear to all of us that our common duty is to show the greatest concern for every young artistic talent ideologically close to us, and all the more when it is a matter of someone who is our brother-in-arms. The first condition of such an attentive and considerate attitude is not to give premature praise, killing the young writer’s self-criticism; the second condition is not to wash one’s hands of the man at once if he stumbles. Comrade Libedinsky is still very young. He needs to learn and to grow. And in this connection it turns out that Pilnyak fulfils a need. (A voice: “For Libedinsky or for us?”) First of all, for Libedinsky. (Libedinsky: “But this means that I’ve been poisoned by Pilnyak.”) Alas, the human organism can be nourished only by taking poison and producing internal resources that combat the poison. That’s life. If you let yourself go dry, like a Caspian roach, that won’t mean you’re poisoned, but you won’t be nourished either; indeed, it will mean nothing at all will happen. (Laughter)

Comrade Pletnev, speaking here in defence of his abstractions about proletarian culture and its constituent part, proletarian literature, quoted Vladimir Ilyich against me. Now there’s something that’s really to the point! We must give that proper consideration. Not long ago an entire booklet appeared, written by Pletnev, Tretiakov and Sizov, in which proletarian literature was defended by means of quotations from Lenin against Trotsky. This method is very fashionable nowadays. Vardin could write a whole thesis on the subject. But the fact is, Comrade Pletnev, that you know very well how matters stood, because you yourself appealed to me to save you from the thunders of Vladimir Ilyich, who was going, you thought, on account of this very “proletarian culture” of yours, to close down Proletkult altogether. And I promised you that I would defend the continued existence of Proletkult, on certain grounds, but that as regards Bogdanov’s abstractions about proletarian culture I was entirely opposed to you and your protector Bukharin, and entirely in agreement with Vladimir Ilyich.

Comrade Vardin, who speaks here as nothing less than the living embodiment of Party tradition, does not shrink from trampling in the crudest way on what Lenin wrote about proletarian culture. As we know, there is plenty of empty piety around: people “firmly agree” with Lenin and then preach the absolute opposite to his views. In terms that leave room for no other interpretation, Lenin mercilessly condemned “chatter about proletarian culture”. However, there is nothing simpler than getting away from this evidence: why, of course, Lenin condemned chatter about proletarian culture, but, don’t you see, it was only chatter that he condemned, and we are not chattering but seriously getting down to work, and even standing with our arms akimbo. They only forget that Lenin’s sharp condemnation was aimed precisely at those who are now referring to him. Empty piety, I repeat, is available in plenty: refer to Lenin and do the contrary.

The comrades who have spoken here under the sign of proletarian culture approach different ideas according to the attitude of the authors of those ideas to their Proletkult groups. I have tested this and found it true as regards my own fate. My book on literature, which caused so much alarm among certain comrades, appeared originally, as some of you may perhaps recall, in the form of articles in Pravda. I wrote this book over a period of two years, during two summer breaks. This circumstance, as we see today, is of importance in relation to the question that interests us. When it appeared, in the form of newspaper articles, the first part of the book, dealing with “non-October” literature, with the “fellow-travellers”, with the “peasant-singers”, and exposing the limitedness and contradictions of the ideological-artistic position of the fellow-travellers, the Na Postu comrades hailed me with enthusiasm – everywhere you cared to look you found quotations from my articles on the fellow-travellers. At one stage I was quite depressed by it. (Laughter) My estimation of the “fellow-travellers”, I repeat, was regarded as practically faultless; even Vardin made no objections to it. (Vardin: “And I don’t object to it now.”) That is just what I say. But why then do you now obliquely and insinuatingly argue against me about the “fellow-travellers”? What is going on here? At first sight it’s quite incomprehensible. But the solution is a simple one: my crime is not that I incorrectly defined the social nature of the fellow-travellers or their artistic significance – no, Comrade Vardin even now, as we heard, “does not object” to that – my crime is that I did not bow before the manifestos of Oktyabr or Kuznitsa, that I did not acknowledge these groups as the monopolist representatives of the artistic interests of the proletariat – in short, that I did not identify the cultural-historical interests and tasks of the class with the intentions, plans and pretensions of certain literary groups. That was where I went wrong. And when this became clear, then there arose the howl, unexpected by its belatedness: Trotsky is on the side of the petty-bourgeois “fellow-traveller”! Am I for the “fellow-travellers”, or against them? In what sense am I against them? You knew that nearly two years ago, from my articles on the “fellow-travellers”. But then you agreed, you praised, you quoted, you gave your approval. And when, a year later, it turned out that my criticism of the “fellow-travellers” was not at all just an approach to the glorification of some amateurish literary group or other, then the writers and defenders of this group, or rather of these groups, began to bring forward philosophical arguments against my allegedly incorrect attitude to the “fellow-travellers”. Oh, strategists! My offence was not that I estimated incorrectly Pilnyak or Mayakovsky – the Na Postu group added nothing to what I had said, but merely repeated it in vulgarized form – my offence was that I knocked their own literary factory! In the whole of their peevish criticism there is not the shadow of a class approach. What we find is the attitude of one literary group engaged in competition with others, and that’s all.

I mentioned the “peasant-singers”, and we have heard here that the Na Postu group especially approved of that chapter. It’s not enough to approve, you should understand. What is the point here regarding the “peasant-singing” fellow-travellers? It is that this is a phenomenon which is not accidental, is not of minor importance and is not ephemeral. In our country, please don’t forget, we have the dictatorship of the proletariat in a country which is inhabited mainly by peasants. The intelligentsia is placed between these two classes as between two millstones, is ground up little by little and arises anew, and cannot be ground up completely, that is, it will remain as an “intelligentsia” for a long time yet, until the full development of socialism and a very considerable rise in the cultural level of the entire population of the country. The intelligentsia serves the workers’ and peasants’ state and subordinates itself to the proletariat, partly from fear, partly from conviction; it wavers and will continue to waver in accordance with the course of events, and it will seek ideological support for its waverings in the peasantry – this is the source of the Soviet literature of the “peasant-singers”. What are the prospects of this school? Is it basically hostile to us? Does its path lead towards us or away from us? And this depends on the general course of events. The task of the proletariat consists in retaining all-round hegemony over the peasantry and leading it to socialism. If we were to suffer a setback on this road, that is, if there were to be a break between the proletariat and the peasantry, then the “peasant-singing” intelligentsia, or, more correctly, 99 per cent of the entire intelligentsia, would turn against the proletariat. But this eventuality is not at all inevitable. We are, on the contrary, following a course aimed at bringing the peasantry, under the leadership of the proletariat, to socialism. This is a very, very long road. In the course of this process both the proletariat and the peasantry will bring forward their own intelligentsia. It need not be supposed that the intelligentsia arising from the proletariat will be a 100 per cent proletarian intelligentsia. The very fact that the proletariat is obliged to promote from its ranks a special stratum of “cultural workers” inevitably means a more or less considerable cultural disconnection between the remainder of the class as a whole and the proletarians promoted from it. This applies even more in the case of the peasant intelligentsia. The peasants’ road to socialism is not at all the same as the proletariat’s. And in so far as the intelligentsia, even an arch-Soviet intelligentsia, is unable to merge its road with the road of the proletarian vanguard, to that degree it tries to find a political, ideological, artistic support for itself in the peasant, whether real or imagined. This appears all the more in the sphere of fiction, where we have an old Populist tradition. Is this for us or against us? I repeat: the answer entirely depends on the entire future course of development. If we draw the peasant, towed by the proletariat, to socialism – and we confidently believe that we shall draw him – then the creative work of the “peasant-singers” will evolve by complex and tortuous paths into the socialist art of the future. This complexity of the problems involved, and at the same time their reality and concreteness, is completely beyond the understanding of the Na Postu group, and not only of them. This is their fundamental mistake. Talking about the “fellow-travellers” regardless of this social basis and prospect means simply wagging one’s tongue.

Allow me, comrades, to say a little more about Comrade Vardin’s tactics in the field of literature, in relation to his last article in Na Postu. In my view this is not tactics but a disgrace! An amazingly supercilious tone, but deadly little knowledge or understanding. No understanding of art as art, that is, as a particular, specific field of human creativity; nor any Marxist understanding of the conditions and ways of development of art. Instead, an unworthy juggling of quotations from White-Guard publications abroad which, do you see, have praised Comrade Voronsky for publishing the works of Pilnyak, or ought to have praised him, or said something against Vardin and, maybe, for Voronsky, and so on, and so on – in that spirit of “circumstantial evidence” which has to make up for the lack of knowledge and understanding. Comrade Vardin’s last article is built on the idea that a White-Guard newspaper supported Voronsky against Vardin, writing that the whole conflict came down to the point that Voronsky approached literature from the literary point of view. “Comrade Voronsky, by his political behaviour,” says Vardin, “has fully deserved this White-Guard kiss.” But this is an insinuation, not an analysis of the question! If Vardin disagrees with the multiplication table, while Voronsky finds himself in this matter on the same side as a White Guard who knows arithmetic, Voronsky’s political reputation has nothing to fear from that. Yes, art has to be approached as art, literature as literature, that is, as a quite specific field of human endeavour. Of course we have a class criterion in art too, but this class criterion must be refracted artistically, that is, in conformity with the quite specific peculiarities of that field of creativity to which we are applying our criterion. The bourgeoisie knows this very well, it likewise approaches art from its class point of view, it knows how to get from art what it needs, but only because it approaches art as art. What is there to wonder at if an artistically-literate bourgeois has a disrespectful attitude to Vardin, who approaches art from the standpoint of political “circumstantial evidence”, and not with a class-artistic criterion? And if there is anything that makes me feel ashamed it is not that in this dispute I may find myself formally in the same boat with some White Guard who understands art, but that, before the eyes of this White Guard I am obliged to explain the first letters in the alphabet of art to a Party publicist who writes articles about art. What a cheapening of Marxism this is: instead of making a Marxist analysis of the question, one finds a quotation from Rul or Dyen and around it piles up abuse and insinuations!

One cannot approach art as one can politics, not because artistic creation is a religious rite or something mystical, as somebody here ironically said, but because it has its own laws of development, and above all because 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. It has been said here that those writings of Pilnyak’s which are closer to Communism are feebler than those which are politically further away from us. What is the explanation? Why, just this, that on the rationalistic plane Pilnyak is ahead of himself as an artist. To consciously swing himself round on his own axis even only a few degrees is a very difficult task for an artist, often connected with a profound, sometimes fatal crisis. And what we are considering is not an individual or group change in creative endeavour, but such a change on the class, social scale. This is a long and very complicated process. When we speak of proletarian literature not in the sense of particular more or less successful verses or stories, but in the incomparably more weighty sense in which we speak of bourgeois literature, we have no right to forget for one moment the extraordinary cultural backwardness of the overwhelming majority of the proletariat. Art is created on the basis of a continual everyday, cultural, ideological inter-relationship between a class and its artists. Between the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie and their artists there was no split in daily life. The artists lived, and still live, in a bourgeois milieu, breathing the air of bourgeois salons, they received and are receiving hypodermic inspirations from their class. This nourishes the subconscious processes of their creativity. Does the proletariat of today offer such a cultural-ideological milieu, in which the new artist may obtain, without leaving it in his day-to-day existence, all the inspiration he needs while at the same time mastering the procedures of his craft? No, the working masses are culturally extremely backward; the illiteracy or low level of literacy of the majority of the workers presents in itself a very great obstacle to this. And above all, the proletariat, in so far as it remains a proletariat, is compelled to expend its best forces in political struggle, in restoring the economy, and in meeting elementary cultural needs, fighting against illiteracy, lousiness, syphilis, etc. Of course, the political methods and revolutionary customs of the proletariat can also be called its culture; but this, in any case, is a sort of culture which is destined to die out as a new, real culture develops. And this new culture will be culture all the more to the extent that the proletariat has ceased to be a proletariat, that is, the more successfully and completely socialist society develops.

Mayakovsky wrote a very powerful piece called The Thirteen Apostles, the revolutionariness of which was still rather cloudy and formless. And when this same Mayakovsky decided to swing himself round to the proletarian line, and wrote 150 Million, he suffered a most frightful rationalistic downfall. This means that in his logic he had outrun his real creative condition. With Pilnyak, as we have said already, a similar disparity is to be observed between his conscious striving and the unconscious processes of creation. To this must be added merely this, that arch-proletarian works also do not in themselves provide the writer in present-day conditions with any guarantees that his creativity will prove to be organically linked with the class. Nor do groupings of proletarian writers provide this guarantee, precisely because the writer, by devoting himself to artistic work, is compelled, in existing conditions, to separate himself from the milieu of his own class and breathe an atmosphere which, after all, is the same as that breathed by the “fellow-travellers”. This is just one literary circle among other literary circles.

And as regards future prospects, as they are called, I wanted to say something, but my time is long since up. (Voices: “Please go on!”) “Give us, at least, some view of the way ahead,” comrades come back at me. What does this mean? The Na Postu comrades and their allied groups are steering towards a proletarian literature created by the circle method, in a laboratory, so to speak. This way forward I reject absolutely. I repeat once more that it is not possible to put in one historical category feudal, bourgeois and proletarian literature. Such a historical classification is radically false. I spoke about this in my book, and all the objections I have heard seem to me unconvincing and frivolous. Those who talk about proletarian literature seriously and over a long period, who make a platform of proletarian culture, are thinking, where this question is concerned, along the line of a formal analogy with bourgeois culture. The bourgeoisie took power and created its own culture; the proletariat, they think having taken power, will create proletarian culture. But the bourgeoisie is a rich and therefore educated class. Bourgeois culture existed already before the bourgeoisie had formally taken power. The bourgeoisie took power in order to perpetuate its rule. The proletariat in bourgeois society is a propertyless and deprived class, and so it cannot create a culture of its own. Only after taking power does it really become aware of its own frightful cultural backwardness. In order to overcome this it needs to abolish those conditions which keep it in the position of a class, the proletariat. The more we can speak of a new culture in being, the less this will possess a class character. This is the fundamental problem – and the principal difference, in so far as we are arguing about the way forward. Some, starting from the principle of proletarian culture, say: we have in mind only the epoch of transition to socialism – those twenty, thirty, fifty years during which the bourgeois world will be transformed. Can the literature, intended and suitable for the proletariat, which will be created in this period, be called proletarian literature? In any case, we are giving this term “proletarian literature” a totally different meaning from the first, broad meaning we spoke of. But this is not the main problem. This basic feature of the transition period, taken on the international scale, is intense class struggle. Those twenty to thirty years of which we speak will be first and foremost a period of open civil war. And civil war, though preparing the way for the great culture of the future, is in itself extremely unfavourable in its effect on contemporary culture. In its immediate effect October more or less killed literature. Poets and artists fell silent. Was this an accident? No. Long ago it was said: when the sound of weapons is heard, the Muses fall silent. A breathing-space was needed if literature was to revive. It began to revive in our country at the same time as NEP began. Reviving, it at once took on the colouring of the fellow-travellers. It is impossible not to reckon with the facts. The tensest moments, that is, those in which our revolutionary epoch finds its highest expression, are unfavourable for literary, and in general for artistic creation. If revolution begins tomorrow in Germany or in all Europe, will this bring an immediate flowering of proletarian literature? Certainly not. It will weaken and destroy, not expand, artistic creation, for we shall again have to mobilize and arm one and all. And amid the clash of arms, the Muses are silent. (Cries: “Demyan wasn’t silent.”) Yes, you keep harping on Demyan, but it won’t do. You begin by proclaiming a new era of proletarian literature, you create circles, associations, groups for this literature, you again and again refer to Demyan. But Demyan is a product of the old, pre-October literature. He has not founded any school, nor will he found any. He was brought up on Krylov, Gogol and Nekrasov. In this sense he is the revolutionary last-born child of our old literature. The very fact of your referring to him is a refutation of your theory.

What is the way forward? Fundamentally, it is the growth of literacy, education, special courses for workers, the cinema, the gradual reconstruction of everyday life, the further advance in the cultural level. This is the fundamental process, intersecting with new intensifications of civil war, on an all-European and world scale. On this basis, the line of purely literary creation will be an extremely zigzag one. Kuznitsa, Oktyabr and other such groups are in no sense landmarks along the road of the cultural class creativity of the proletariat, but merely episodes of a superficial nature. If from these groups a few good young poets or writers emerge, this won’t give us proletarian literature, but it will be useful. But if you try to transform MAPP and VAPP into factories of proletarian literature, you will certainly fail, just as you have failed up to now. A member of one of these associations regards himself as, in one way, a representative of the proletariat in the world of art, in another way as a representative of art in the world of the proletariat. Membership of VAPP confers a sort of title. It is objected that VAPP is only a Communist circle in which a young poet obtains the necessary inspiration, and so on. Well, and what about the Party? If he is a real poet and a genuine Communist, the Party in all its work will give him incomparably more inspiration than MAPP and VAPP. Of course, the Party must and will pay very great attention to every young artistic talent that is akin or ideologically close to it. But its fundamental task in relation to literature and culture is raising the level of literacy – simple literacy, political literacy, scientific literacy – of the working masses, and thereby laying the foundation for a new art.

I know that this prospect does not satisfy you. It seems insufficiently definite. Why? Because you envisage the further development of culture in too regular, too evolutionary a way: the present shoots of proletarian literature will, you think, grow and develop, becoming continually richer, and so genuine proletarian literature will be created, which later will change into socialist literature. No, things won’t develop like that. After the present breathing-space, when a literature strongly coloured by the “fellow-travellers” is being created – not by the Party, not by the state – there will come a period of new, terrible spasms of civil war. We shall inevitably be drawn into it. It is quite possible that revolutionary poets will give us martial verses, but the continuity of literary development will nevertheless be sharply broken. All forces will be concentrated on the direct struggle. Shall we then have a second breathing-space? I do not know. But the result of this new, much mightier period of civil war, if we are victorious, will be the complete securing and consolidation of the socialist basis of our economy. We shall receive fresh technical and organizational help. Our development will go forward at a different rate. And on that basis, after the zigzags and upheavals of civil war, only then will begin a real building of culture, and, consequently, also the creation of a new literature. But this will be socialist culture, built entirely on constant intercourse between the artist and the masses who will have come of age culturally, linked by ties of solidarity. You do not proceed in your thinking from this vision of the future: you have your own, the vision of a group. You want our party, in the name of the proletariat, to officially adopt your little artistic factory. You think that, having planted a kidney-bean in a flower pot, you are capable of raising the tree of proletarian literature. That is not the way. No tree can be grown from a kidney-bean.

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Last updated on: 20 April 2021