Leon Trotsky

Literature and Revolution

Chapter 7
Communist Policy Toward Art

Revolutionary Art Not Produced by Workers Alone – Leisure and Political Indifference Of True Intelligentsia as Factors in Creative Art – The Functions of the Communist Party in Relation to Art – Social Cataclysm and the Continuity of Art and Culture

THERE are Marxists in literature who have taken an arrogant attitude toward Futurists, the “Serapion Fraternity”, Imagists and all the “fellow-travellers” in general, together or separately. That is why it has become quite the thing to run down Pilnyak and the Futurists have become quite adept at this. It is unquestionably true that Pilnyak is irritating because of some of his peculiarities. He is too light in great questions; he shows off too much and his mortar is too full of lyricism. But Pilnyak has shown the Revolution from the angle of the peasant in the provinces splendidly, and he has shown us the cattle-car – thanks to Pilnyak all these stand before us immeasurably clearer and more tangible than ever before. And how about Vsevolod Ivanov? Have we not discovered Russia and felt its vastness, its ethnographic variety, its backwardness and its sweep better after reading his Guerilla-fighters, The Armored Train, The Blue Sands, in spite of all their sins in construction, their unevenness of style, and even their oleographics? Does anyone really think that this Imagist knowledge can be replaced with Futurist hyperboles or with the monotonous singing of syllables or with journalistic articles which, day in day out, combine the same three hundred words in a different way? Throw out Pilnyak and Vsevo!od Ivanov from our life and we shall be considerably the poorer. The organizers of the campaign against the fellow-travellers – a campaign which shows an insufficient concern about perspectives and proportions – have selected Voronsky as one of their targets, the editor of the Krasnaya Nov and the leader of “Krug’;s” publishing house. We think that Voronsky is carrying out a great literary and cultural work under the direction of the Party and, indeed, it is much easier to decree a Communist art in a little article than to participate in the drudgery of its preparation!

In the question of form, our critics, hewed to the line taken by the almanac Raspad some time ago (in 1908). But after all, one has to understand and sum up the differences in historic situations and the rearrangement of forces which has taken place since then. At that time we were a party driven underground. The revolution was retreating and the counter-revolution of Stolypin and of the anarchists and mystics was advancing along the entire line. In the Party itself, the intelligentsia played a disproportionately big part, and the groups of intelligentsia of various political shades exercised an influence upon one another. Under such conditions, for the self-protection of our ideology, a violent resistance to the literary moods of the reaction which began after 1905 was needed.

At the present time an entirely different process is taking place, a process that is fundamentally the reverse. The law of social attraction (towards the ruling class) which, in the last analysis, determines the creative work of the intelligentsia, is now operating to our advantage. One has to keep this fact in mind when shaping a political attitude toward art.

It is untrue that revolutionary art can be created only by workers. Just because the revolution is a working-class revolution, it releases – to repeat what was said before – very little working-class energy for art. During the French Revolution, the greatest works which, directly or indirectly, reflected it, were created not by French artists, but by German, English, and others. The French bourgeoisie, which was directly concerned with making the revolution, could not give up a sufficient quantity of its strength to re-create and to perpetuate its imprint. This is still more true of the proletariat, which, though it has culture in politics, has little culture in art. The intelligentsia, aside from the advantages of its qualifications in form, has also the odious privilege of holding a passive political position, which is marked by a greater or lesser degree of hostility or friendliness towards the October Revolution.

It is not surprising, then, that this contemplative intelligentsia is able to give, and does give, a better artistic reproduction of the revolution than the proletariat which has made the revolution, though the re-creations of the intelligentsia are somewhat off line. We know very well the political limitations, the instability and the unreliability of the fellow travellers. But if we should eliminate Pilnyak, with his The Naked Year, the “Serapion Fraternity” with Vsevolod Ivanov, Tikhonov, and Polonskaya, if we should eliminate Mayakovsky and Yessenin, is there anything that will remain for us but a few unpaid promissory notes of a future proletarian literature? Especially as Demyan Biedny, who cannot be counted among the “fellow travellers” and who, we hope, cannot be eliminated from revolutionary literature, cannot be related to proletarian literature in the sense as defined by the manifesto of the Kuznitsa. What will remain then?

Does that mean that the party, quite in opposition to its nature, occupies a purely eclectic position in the field of art? This argument, which seems so crushing, is, in reality, extremely childish. The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same as the artistic. The party leads the proletariat but not the historic processes of history. There are domains in which the party leads, directly and imperatively. There are domains in which it only cooperates. There are, finally, domains in which it only orients itself. The domain of art is not one in which the party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but it can only lead it indirectly. It can and must give the additional credit of its confidence to various art groups, which are striving sincerely to approach the revolution and so help an artistic formulation of the revolution. And at any rate, the party cannot and will not take the position of a literary circle which is struggling and merely competing with other literary circles. The party stands guard over the historic interests of the working class in its entirety. Because it prepares consciously and step by step the ground for a new culture and therefore for a new art, it regards the literary “fellow travellers” not as the competitors of the writers of the working class, but as the real or potential helpers of the working class in the big work of reconstruction. The party understands the episodic character of the literary groups of a transition period and estimates them, not from the point of view of the class passports of the individual gentlemen literati, but from the, point of view of the place which these groups occupy and can occupy in preparing a socialist culture. If it is not possible to determine the place of any given group today, then the party as a party will wait patiently and gracefully. Individual critics or readers may sympathise with one group or another in advance. The party, as a whole, protects the historic interests of the working class and must be more objective and wise. Its caution must be double-edged. If the party does not put its stamp of approval on the Kuznitsa, just because workers write for it, it does not, in advance, repel any given literary group, even from the intelligentsia, insofar as such a group tries to approach the revolution and tries to strengthen one of its links – a link is always a weak point – between the city and the village, or between the party member and the non-partisan, or between the intelligentsia and the workers.

Does not such a policy mean, however, that the party is going to have an unprotected flank on the side of art? This is a great exaggeration. The party will repel the clearly poisonous, disintegrating tendencies of art and will guide itself by its political standards. It is true, however, that it is less protected on the flank of art than on the political front. But is this not true of science also? What are the metaphysicians of a purely proletarian science going to say about the theory of relativity? Can it be reconciled with materialism, or can it not? Has this question been decided? Where and when and by whom? It is clear to anyone, even to the uninitiated, that the work of our physiologist, Pavlov, is entirely along materialist lines. But what is one to say about the psychoanalytic theory of Freud? Can it be reconciled with materialism, as, for instance, Karl Radek thinks (and I also), or is it hostile to it? The same question can be put to all the new theories of atomic structure, etc., etc. It would be fine if a scientist would come along who could grasp all these new generalisations methodologically and introduce them into the dialectic materialist conception of the world. He could thus, at the same time, test the new theories and develop the dialectic method deeper. But I am very much afraid that this work – which is not like a newspaper or journalistic article, but a scientific and philosophic landmark, just as the Origin of Species and Capital – will not be created either today or tomorrow, or rather, if such an epoch-making book were created today, it would risk remaining uncut until the time when the proletariat will be able to lay aside its arms.

But does not the work of culture-bearing, that is, the work of acquiring the ABC of pre-proletarian culture, presuppose criticism, selection and a class standard? Of course it does. But the standard is a political one and not an abstract cultural one. The political standard coincides with the cultural one only in the broad sense that the revolution creates conditions for a new culture. But this does not mean that such a coinciding is secured in every given case. If the revolution has the right to destroy bridges and art monuments whenever necessary, it will stop still less from laying its hand on any tendency in art which, no matter how great its achievement in form, threatens to disintegrate the revolutionary environment or to arouse the internal forces of the revolution, that is, the proletariat, the peasantry and the intelligentsia, to a hostile opposition to one another. Our standard is, clearly, political, imperative and intolerant. But for this very reason, it must define the limits of its activity clearly. For a more precise expression of my meaning, I will say: we ought to have a watchful revolutionary censorship, and a broad and flexible policy in the field of art, free from petty partisan maliciousness.

It is quite evident that the party cannot, not for one day, follow the liberal principle of laisser faire and laisser passer, even in the field of art The question is only at what point should interference begin, and what should be its limits; in which case and between what should the party choose. And this question is not at all as simple as the theorists of the “Lef”, the heralds of proletarian literature and the critics are pleased to think.

The aims, the problems and the methods of the working class are incomparably more concrete, more definite and theoretically better elaborated in economics than in art Nevertheless, after a brief attempt to build an economy by means of centralisation, the party found itself compelled to admit the parallel existence of different and even of competing economic types. We have the State industries which are organised into trusts, we have enterprises of a local character, we have leased industries, concessional and privately owned enterprises, cooperatives, individual peasant economies, kustar or trade shops, collective enterprises and so forth. The basic policy of the State is towards a centralised Socialist economy. But this general tendency includes, for a given period, unlimited support for a peasant economy and for the kustar. Without this, the policy in the direction of a large-scale Socialist industry becomes abstract and dead.

Our Republic is a union of workers, peasants and petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, under the leadership of the Communist Party. Given the development of technology and culture, a Communist society should develop in a series of stages out of this social combination. It is clear that the peasantry and the intelligentsia will not come to Communism by the same road as did the workers. These roads cannot help but be reflected in art The non-Communist intelligentsia which has not thrown in its lot unreservedly with the proletariat, and this comprises the overwhelming majority of the intelligentsia, seeks support in the peasantry because of the absence, or rather, the extreme weakness of bourgeois support. For the time being, this process has a purely preparatory and symbolic character, and expresses itself (with hindsight) in the idealisation of the peasant elements of the Revolution. This peculiar neo-populism is characteristic of all the “fellow-travellers”. Later on, with the growth of the number of schools in the villages and of those who can read, the bond between this art and the peasantry may become more organic. At the same time, the peasantry will develop a creative intelligentsia of its own. The peasant point of view in economics, in politics and in art, is more primitive, more limited, more egoistic, than that of the proletariat. But this peasant point of view exists and will continue to exist for a long time and very earnestly. And if an artist, looking at life from the peasant, or more often from the intelligentsia and peasant point of view, is struck with the idea that a union of the peasants and the workers is necessary and vital, then his artistic work, given the necessary conditions, will be historically progressive. Through the influence of such art, the needed historical cooperation between the village and the city will be strengthened. The movement of the peasantry towards Socialism will be profound, purposeful, many-sided and many-coloured, and there is every reason to believe that the creative work which will be done under its direct suggestion will add valuable chapters to the history of art. On the contrary, the point of view which opposes the organic, the age-old, the indivisible, the “national” village to the whirling city, is historically reactionary; the art resulting from such a point of view is inimical to the proletariat, incompatible with progress and doomed to extinction. The conclusion can be drawn that such an art, even as far as form is concerned, can give nothing but rehashes and reminiscences.

Kliuev, the Imagists, the “Serapion Fraternity”, Pilnyak and such Futurists as Khlebnikov, Kruchenikh and Kamensky, have a peasant underpinning. With some it is more or less conscious; with others it is organic; with still others, it is in fact a bourgeois underpinning, translated into peasant form. The Futurist attitude to the proletariat is the least dual of all. The “Serapion Fraternity”, the Imagists, Pilnyak, deviate here and there into an opposition to the proletariat – at least, this was true until very recently. All these groups reflected, in an extremely uneven form, the state of mind of the village at the time of forced requisitions. It was then that the intelligentsia sought refuge from hunger in the villages and there accumulated its impressions. In its art, the intelligentsia summarised these years rather ambiguously. But this summary was made within the period which ended with the Kronstadt rebellion. At present, a considerable change has taken place in the peasant’s point of view. This change has left its mark on the intelligentsia also and may, and in fact must, have an influence on the work of the peasant-singing “fellow-travellers”. This influence has already shown itself to a certain extent. These groups under the influence of social impulses will have internal struggles, splits and reorganisations. All this must be followed very carefully and critically. A party which, not without some reason we hope, lays claim to ideological hegemony, has no right to answer such problems with cheap talk.

But cannot a purely proletarian art, broad enough in scope, illuminate and feed artistically the peasant movement towards Socialism? Of course it can, just as a government electrical station can illuminate and feed its energy to a peasant hut or a barn or a flour mill. All that is necessary is to have such an electric station and the wires running from it to the village. By the way, under such conditions there will be no danger of antagonism between industry and agriculture. But we have no such wires yet. Even the electrical station is still non-existent. There is no proletarian art. Proletarian art, which includes groups of working-class poets and Communists-Futurists, is about as near to gratifying artistically the demands of the city and the village as, let us say, Soviet industry is near solving the problems of universal economics.

But even were we to leave aside the peasantry – and how can one leave it aside? – it will appear that, even with the proletariat, that basic class of Soviet society, matters are not as simple as they appear in the pages of the “Lef”. When the futurists propose to throw overboard the old literature of individualism, not only because it has become antiquated in form, but because it contradicts the collectivist nature of the proletariat, they reveal a very inadequate understanding of the dialectic nature of the contradiction between individualism and collectivism. There are no abstract truths. There are different kinds of individualism. Because of too much individualism, a section of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia threw itself into mysticism, but another section moved along the chaotic lines of futurism and, caught by the revolution – to their honour be it said – came nearer to the proletariat. But when they who came nearer because their teeth were set on edge by individualism carry their feeling over to the proletariat, they show themselves guilty of egocentrism, that is, of extreme individualism. The trouble is that the average proletarian is lacking in this very quality. In the mass, proletarian individuality has not been sufficiently formed and differentiated. It is just such heightening of the objective quality and the subjective consciousness of individuality that is the most valuable contribution of the cultural advance at the threshold of which we stand today. It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer. At the beginning, Gorky was imbued with the romantic individualism of the tramp. Nevertheless, he fed the early spring revolutionism of the proletariat on the eve of 1905, because he helped to awaken individuality in that class in which individuality, once awakened, seeks contact with other awakened individualities. The proletariat is in need of artistic food and education, but that does not mean to say that the proletariat is mere clay which artists, those that have gone and those that are still to come, can fashion in their own image and in their own likeness.

Though the proletariat is spiritually, and therefore, artistically, very sensitive, it is uneducated aesthetically. It is hardly reasonable to think that it can simply begin at the point where the bourgeois intelligentsia left off on the eve of the catastrophe. Just as an individual passes biologically and psychologically through the history of the race and, to some extent, of the entire animal world in his development from the embryo, so, to a certain extent, must the overwhelming majority of a new class which has only recently come out of prehistoric life, pass through the entire history of artistic culture. This class cannot begin the construction of a new culture without absorbing and assimilating the elements of the old cultures. This does not mean in the least that it is necessary to go through step by step, slowly and systematically, the entire past history of art. Insofar as it concerns a social class and not a biologic individual, the process of absorption and transformation has a freer and more conscious character. But a new class cannot move forward without regard to the most important landmarks of the past.

In its struggle for the preservation of continuity in artistic culture, the left wing of the old art, whose social basis has been destroyed by the Revolution more thoroughly than ever before in history, is compelled to seek support in the proletariat, or at least, in the new social environment which is being formed about the proletariat In its turn, the proletariat takes advantage of its position as ruling class and tries and begins to make contacts with art in general, and thus to prepare the ground for an unprecedented influence of art. In this sense it is true that the factory news bulletins pasted on their walls represent a very necessary, though very remote, premise for the new literature of the future. No one, however, will say: Let us cross out everything else until the proletariat shall have risen from these walled bulletins to an independent craftsmanship of art The proletariat also needs a continuity of creative tradition. At the present time the proletariat realises this continuity not directly, but indirectly, through the creative bourgeois intelligentsia which gravitates towards the proletariat and which wants to keep warm under its wing. The proletariat tolerates a part of this intelligentsia, supports another part, half-adopts a third, and entirely assimilates a fourth. The policy of the Communist Party towards art is determined by the complexity of this process, by its internal many-sidedness. It is impossible to reduce this policy to one formula, to something short like a bird’s bill. Nor is it necessary to do this.

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Last updated on: 6.1.2007