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International Socialist Review, Winter 1958


Trent Hutter

Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.1, Winter 1958, pp.26-28.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Literature and Revolution
by Leon Trotsky.
Russell & Russell, New York. 1957. 256 pp. $3.75.

The growing aspiration of Soviet artists for greater freedom of expression is obviously worrying the ruling caste. In three recent speeches Khrushchev attacked the anti-Stalinist tendency visible in such novels as Not By Bread Alone. “They tried to interpret this criticism [of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress] as a sweeping denial of the positive role of J.V. Stalin in the life of our party and country ...”

Khrushchev reaffirmed the Kremlin’s insistence upon “Socialist realism” in art; that is, “to support the good and faithfully show it in bright colors,” to depict “the Soviet peoples’ great stint of transformation, the nobility of their aims and aspirations and their lofty moral and ethical standard ...”

In the tradition of Stalin, Khrushchev opposes artistic freedom. “In Socialist society ... the question of whether he is free or not in his creative work simply does not exist for anyone who faithfully serves his people ...” Surveillance of the artist by the party is necessary: “It is very important to notice in time shortcomings or mistakes of separate creative workers ...” Khrushchev admits that “the guidance of literature and art by the party and the state is oppressive,” but his present policy is all according to Lenin.

* * *

Those who believe that Stalinist cultural policy is according to Lenin – and even outside the Stalinist milieu many radicals do not yet fully understand the difference – should read Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, which has just been republished after being out of print for more than two decades. The appearance of the book is most timely. Many radicals are now re-evaluating the Stalinist line in cultural matters, which they had accepted without actually realizing what they were doing. They can now check for themselves what the cultural policy of the leaders of the Russian Revolution was actually like.

The book is all the more interesting because it was written when the bureaucracy was just emerging as a caste, increasing its influence, undermining workers democracy, taking the offensive but not yet daring to openly challenge the heroes of the Revolution. How could Trotsky write a book about cultural questions in a situation as dangerous as the one that existed in the USSR at the time of Lenin’s death in 1924?

Significantly enough, the unfolding tragedy was somehow reflected in the artistic and cultural debates in which Trotsky participated with Literature and Revolution. In this book he opposed the concept of “proletarian culture” which, under the name of “Socialist realism,” was to become the cultural theory of Stalinism. This pernicious theory was used to rationalize the stifling of free thought and free expression and the transforming of art into an instrument for the glorification of the bureaucracy and the “personality” of Stalin.

Of course, the ultimate consequences of the theory of “proletarian culture” were not visible in 1924; and many of the theory’s partisans certainly did not consciously favor the growth of bureaucratic tendencies. But Trotsky saw that the concept of “proletarian culture” was pseudo-Marxist, basically non-Marxist. He must have felt that the young Soviet democracy was threatened culturally as it was politically and that the two threats were interlinked.

Those who tend to underrate the importance of cultural questions and think that art is merely some kind of luxury are advised to meditate Trotsky’s lifelong interest in literature and the arts. The great revolutionist, the master of Marxist theory and founder of the Red Army, knew that “the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.” Hence his defense of the Marxist position in the debate that broke out in the cultural arena and his concern about the workers state having a correct policy.

He examined the various literary schools that existed in post-revolutionary Russia. Although the figures Trotsky deals with are scarcely known outside Russia (or in Russia either today!), and although they were not significant enough to win a permanent place in world literature, Trotsky’s consideration of their work is most stimulating and revealing. Through his criticism of their many weaknesses, he presents the Marxist theory of art. And when he criticizes, even at his sharpest he does not swing the club of the bureaucratic policeman.

Trotsky underscores the fact that a poor, backward country just emerging from war, civil strife and famine could not expect a flowering of culture. Yet the intellectuals and artists were debating answers to important questions: How would culture and intellectual life develop in the Soviet Union? What should be its aims? What was the correct socialist policy in this field? Despite the hunger and the backwardness, despite the standing threat of intervention from abroad, despite the small number of people who could participate in cultural activities in those difficult days, the debate was a lively one. A democratic atmosphere prevailed. Interesting initiatives were taken. Groups holding varying positions freely confronted each other. There was probably more genuine concern over basic cultural questions, more heartfelt enthusiasm for the arts in war-torn, poverty-stricken, exhausted Russia of the early twenties than in the wealthy United States of today.

The ultimate aim, says Trotsky, is a socialist culture, a culture that overcomes the capitalist-created separation of intellectual from physical work. But for this, “large social, economic and cultural means” are necessary. “Art needs comfort, even abundance.” Can the workers create a proletarian culture transitional between bourgeois culture and the socialist culture of the future, something corresponding to the workers state, which is a political transition between the bourgeoise state and the classless society where the state will have withered away?

No, Trotsky replies.

“... the period of the social revolution, on a world scale, will last ... decades, but not centuries ... Can the proletariat in this time create a new culture? It is legitimate to doubt this, because the years of social revolution will be years of fierce class struggles ... At any rate, the energy of the proletariat itself will be spent mainly in conquering power, in retaining and strengthening it ...”

Creation of a new culture will start after great international victories of the working class. But then “the proletariat will be more and more dissolved into a Socialist community and will free itself from its class characteristics and thus cease to be a proletariat ... This seems to lead to the conclusion that there is no proletarian culture and that there never will be any and in fact there is no reason to regret this. The proletariat acquires power for the purpose of doing away forever with class culture and to make way for human culture. We frequently seem to forget this.”

The workers state has to assimilate and use the achievements of bourgeois culture and science. Marxism itself is a product not of some “proletarian culture” but of bourgeois culture.

“... its theory was formed entirely on the basis of bourgeois culture both scientific and political, though it declared a fight to the finish upon that culture. Under the pressure of capitalistic contradictions, the universalizing thought of the bourgeois democracy, of its boldest, most honest, and most far-sighted representatives, rises to the heights of a marvelous renunciation, armed with all the critical weapons of bourgeois science. Such is the origin of Marxism.”

The question of socialist science is, of course, closely linked to that of socialist culture. Even in the transitional period

“there might appear eminent scientists, inventors, dramatists and poets out of the ranks of the proletariat ... But it would be extremely light-minded to give the name of proletarian culture, even to the most valuable achievements of individual representatives of the working class.”

Mankind’s cultural heritage cannot be ignored. “In the economy of art, as in the economy of nature, nothing is lost, and everything is connected in the large.”

The working class “cannot begin the construction of a new culture without absorbing and assimilating the elements of the old cultures ...” “... a new class cannot move forward without regard to the most important landmarks of the past ...” “The proletariat also needs a continuity of creative tradition.”

As for the policy of the Communist party toward art, this is determined by the complexity of the links between the proletariat and the creative bourgeois intelligentsia. “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.”

Was artistic creation in the Soviet Union freer under Lenin than under Khrushchev? At first sight, it might seem that little difference can be found, for a censorship was enforced by both regimes. But the content of the censorship changed radically. Trotsky states its purpose in the twenties when the Soviet Union was beleaguered from all sides: “We ought to have a watchful revolutionary censorship, and a broad and flexible policy in the field of art, free from petty partisan maliciousness.” Its purpose is to block any tendency which “threatens to disintegrate the revolutionary environment or to arouse ... the proletariat, the peasantry and the intelligentsia, to a hostile opposition to one another.”

Censorship against counter-revolutionary literature was understandable in the weak Soviet Union of the early twenties in view of the immense pressure from the surrounding capitalist world. But did it work? Perhaps it was unavoidable in the early years; but with the victory in the civil war, the counter-revolutionary danger no longer came from the Czarist forces. It came from something unexpected and unforeseen, the rising bureaucracy. When Stalin usurped power, he turned the censorship into an instrument of the bureaucratic machine as he likewise did with the secret police and with the Communist party itself. What had been intended to protect the Revolution was converted into its complete opposite.

Whether or not one believes that the censorship turned out to be a mistake, the decisive fact is that cultural policy under Lenin and Trotsky was broad-minded. It encouraged and inspired creative freedom instead of stifling it as under Stalin and Khrushchev.

“Art must make its own way and by its own means,” Trotsky declares. “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 orientates 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.”

How does this compare with the Stalinist policy of putting Soviet artists in the straitjacket of so-called “Socialist realism”? When Khrushchev talks about a “Socialist reality” which the artist must describe and praise, the reality is an oppressive police regime run by a privileged caste. Could anything be more bitter to a genuine artist?

When Khrushchev calls “the press ... our chief ideological weapon” whose duty is “to strike down the enemies of the working class,” what Soviet artist does not feel this as a terrible threat directed at him as well as everyone else who wants to get rid of the bureaucracy and go “Back to Lenin” and – yes! – the Trotsky who wrote Literature and Revolution.

Trotsky does not consider the problems that would face a socialist government in America. They would, of course, be quite different in many respects from those that faced the Soviet Union in the early days. Starting with an incomparably higher standard of living and with the most highly developed industrial plant in the world, a socialist administration will be able to offer the masses much more in the economic and social fields right from the beginning. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union of 35 years ago, Socialist America would face no threat of imperialist intervention. There would be no need for censorship, for the stringent measures the Bolsheviks felt they had to take. In an advanced country like the USA, a workers state will be able to start on a much higher, more tolerant level that will call forth a much quicker and more complete flowering of the arts. This cultural development, along with economic plenty, will not only strengthen the workers state, it will make impossible the appearance of a bureaucratic caste.

However, despite the differences, American socialists can learn a great deal from the experience of the Russian Revolution. The leaders of that revolution were the first to face and deal with a number of basic questions. Their answers deserve the closest attention. As one of those great pioneers, Trotsky’s writings are surprisingly alive and applicable to our time and tasks. His discussion of the socialist position on art remains fundamentally valid. Any radical who has not yet read the last chapter of Literature and Revolution with its inspiring vision of art and man in the socialist future has a great experience coming.

It is not difficult to visualize the effect this book can have in the ferment among intellectual circles in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union when copies find their way there as they are bound to.

In the Soviet literary discussion of the early twenties, which reflected in its way issues connected with the rise of the bureaucracy, one of the groups complained that There are no Belinskys.” [1] Trotsky answered:

“The historic role of the Belinskys was to open up a breathing hole into social life by means of literature. Literary criticism took the place of politics and was a preparation for it. But that which was merely a hint for Belinsky and for the later representatives of radical publicism, has taken on in our day the flesh and blood of October and has become Soviet reality.”

However, as we know, the “Soviet reality” of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s time was succeeded by the reality of the Stalin era. The retrogression was enormous, so much so that in the first stages of today’s political revival, deep and powerful social forces, as in Czarist times, are compelled to find temporary expression in disputes over cultural questions. Today new Belinskys are appearing on the Soviet scene. They are trying to “open up a breathing hole.” Their discussions, taking place in the period of decline of Stalinism, constitute a preparation, far more than at any previous epoch, for great political actions.

To them Literature and Revolution will seem least of all like an echo of past disputes. It will read like the manifesto of a new revolt. Trotsky could not have wished for a better fate for his discussion of art and the Marxist attitude toward it.


1. V.G. Belinsky (1811-1848), a Hegelian who helped pave the way for Marxist thought in Russia. Considered by Plekhanov to be “the most remarkable philosophic organism ever to appear in Russian literature.” For Plekhanov’s study, Belinsky and Rational Reality, see Fourth International, spring, summer, fall 1955, and spring 1956.

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