L. Trotsky

The Party in the Field of Art
and Philosophy

A Reply to the American Comrades Martin Glee, Harry Ross and M. Morris

(June 1933)

Written: 16 June 1933.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 36, 22 July 1933, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Dear Comrades:

Your letter poses very important problems which do not, however, admit, in my opinion, of general and categorical solutions suitable in all cases. As an organization we have as the point of departure not only definite political ideas but certain philosophical and scientific methods. We base ourselves on dialectical materialism, from which flow conclusions not only concerning politics and science, but also art. Still, there is a vast difference in our attitude towards these conclusions. We cannot, to any similar degree, exercize the same rigorous control over art, by the very nature of this activity, as over politics. The party is obliged to permit a very extensive liberty in the field of art, eliminating pitilessly only that which is directed against the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat; on the other hand, the party cannot assume an immediate and direct responsibility for the declarations of its various members in the field of art even when it accords them its tribune. The maintenance of these two rules—the preservation of the liberty necessary for individual creation, and the non-transmission of the responsibility for all its roads to the party—is especially obligatory in those cases where it is a question not of theoreticians in the field of art, but of the artists themselves: painters, men of letters, etc. In addition, the party must be able to distinguish clearly the line where generalization in the field of art passes directly into the field of politics. Without making here any concessions in principle, the party must, however, confine itself in the case of artists to rectifications, firm but tactical, of any false political conclusions flowing from their artistic views. Marx expressed this idea in a jocular phrase about Freiligrath: "Poets are queer fish." (Die Dichter sind sonderbare Kauze.). Lenin applied different criteria to Bogdanov the theoretician and professional politician and to Gorky the artist, in spite of the fact that for a certain period of time Bogdanov and Gorky were closely associated in politics. Lenin proceeded from the standpoint that by his artistic activity and his popularity, Gorky could endow the cause of the revolution with benefits far exceeding the harm of his erroneous declarations and actions which, moreover, the party could always correct in good time and tactfully.

Viewed from this standpoint, philosophical activity lies between art and politics, closer to politics than to art. In philosophy, the party itself occupies a distinct militant position, which is not the case—at least not to the same extent—in the field of art. Objections to the effect that by the "dogmatization" and "canonization" of dialectical materialism, the party prevents the free development of philosophical and scientific thought, do not deserve serious attention. No factory can work without basing itself upon a definite technological doctrine. No hospital can treat its patients if the physicians do not base themselves on the established teachings of Pathology. It would be sheer folly to permit dilettantes to experiment arbitrarily in the factory or in the hospital, on the pretext that they consider themselves "innovators". Innovators must first prove their right to influence practical technology and medicine. The party must be especially vigilant towards those "innovators" who only warm up stale critical dishes, or towards those who are still in the period of investigating, with uncertain results. But least of all does this signify that in the sphere of philosophy the party can act as if all questions have already been resolved for it, and that it has nothing to expect from the further development of scientific thought. It is not an easy matter to find the correct political line in this field. It is acquired only by experience and by a flexible leadership. Just as in artillery fire, the target is usually hit by a series of shots which fall far and then short of the mark.

It is needless to point out that the question: How do the philosophical views of a certain person or a certain group refract themselves in the field of politics and of the organization?—always has a tremendous significance for the elaboration of a correct control by the party. Thus Lenin fought mercilessly against Gorky in 1917 when above all other considerations stood the necessity of a revolutionary overthrow. On the other hand, it must be considered as the greatest shame that the Stalinist bureaucracy is transforming Barbusse the novelist into a leading political figure in spite of the fact that it is precisely in politics that Barbusse marches arm in arm with Renner, Vandervelde, Monnet and Paul Louis.

I am very much afraid that I have not given you a satisfactory reply to the practical questions put to me. But what has been said explains, I hope, why I could not give such a reply which requires a concrete knowledge of the situation and the personal conditions. Just the same, perhaps these brief considerations will at least partially help in the working out of a correct policy in this complicated and responsible field.

Prinkipo, June 16, 1933

With Communist greetings,
L. Trotsky

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Last updated on: 22 October 2015