From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.38-44.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
While in Havana for a period of six months in 1961, working at a worthy task at the Cinematography Institute alongside the best youth of Cuba’s film industry, I once suggested to a small group of young intellectuals that we form a club or literary circle to debate the problems a writer must face under socialism. The circle, club, or whatever would develop from that idea, would have the following theme – theme and program at the same time: “so that Mayakovsky’s suicide not be repeated.” The idea did not prosper, although not for any weighty reason. That is, no one would have impeded its free and unrestricted functioning and activity in revolutionary Cuba, in spite of the influence exerted over public life at that time by Anibal Escalante’s dogmatic group.
What is of interest here is to underline the meaning and importance of the proposed theme, a meaning and importance which are still valid, not only so far as Cuba is concerned, but also for the other socialist countries as well. “So that Mayakovsky’s suicide not be repeated.” Let’s explain this.
Mayakovsky was – is – the poet of the Russian October revolution, the most brilliant and bold, the fullest and most devoted. What people have for a long time insisted on calling the “ivory tower,” did not and could not exist for him. Mayakovsky was himself a tower, his own tower, in the same sense that St. John of the Cross called poets “towers of God.” This, expressed by Mayakovsky, became “clouds in trousers.”
Tower of the revolution, tower of the struggle for communism and for man, tower of militant poetry, that was Mayakovsky. (But what poetry is not militant? And speaking of St. John of the Cross, where else can we find another, more open, limpid, denuded, purer example of poetic combat – with the sole arms of poetry – than that of our Spanish mystic?) Mayakovsky intermingled with daily things, with contingencies, with politics, with unions, with meetings, with love, with fury and passion, with the resolutions of the executive committee of the Soviets, with Lenin’s speeches.
But he did not subordinate himself to these, nor pile up empty words around them. Instead he extracted the poetic truths, the poet’s truth. In favor, against, this did not matter since he was the tower of ivory, of steel, of smoke from the factories, of curses, of kisses, of clenched fists, of rifles, of tears, blood, hopes and languor: “tower of God,” tower of the revolution, one of the purest poets of impure poetry – the only poetry, poetry that calls out its name on the streets or whimpers it in the loneliness of the spirit because nothing poetic is alien to it.
Then why does Mayakovsky commit suicide? He does it – poetry is doing, that is its etymological meaning, so that no other poet commit suicide (and Essenin had already done the same), revolutionary or not, pure or impure. No other poet, but also no one at all, when today, decades later, the same words burn in our hearts with another name, heinously new: so that Jan Palach’s suicide not be repeated. What is the distinction between the two opposite ivory towers?
In the first place, it is absolutely not true of poetry that there can exist ivory towers, poetry closed up within its own pneumatic bell, uncommunicated and unable to communicate. That has been invented by the political schemers of all regimes who want to use poets as court jesters, as their dwarfs, as their scholastic and servile composers of footnotes, as their eunuchs, uncritical and smiling. Real poetry never closes itself off, imprisoned voluntarily behind its iron mask.
A poetry masked with false poetry, whether revolutionary or reactionary, is always meant to conceal other things. It is simply true that real poetry is often not understood by those in its immediate environs. Well, but this is the fatal and inevitable risk of its adventure. It did not purport to be understood by everyone in the here and now of its being, of its presence.
And the Philistines and Pharisees shouldn’t scratch their clothes nor cover their heads with ashes because they consider it a scandal that someone could promote – and from this side, from this side of revolution – the legitimacy of an art “for minorities.” Art is precisely created for minorities and majorities at the same time, on the condition that it be art without conceding to either one. Each will receive from the art what he needs, what he seeks or what he deserves. The poetry of Paul Eluard hardly suffers any alteration – and this only in respect to certain thematic preoccupations, if we accept that the theme, in its strict sense, has something to do with poetry – from the time he enters the French Communist Party. Eluard’s poetry remained the same, marvelous as always. The “ivory tower” is of the other variety, that of “left” political opportunism, radical, loudmouthed, that of utilitarian and dogmatic “tactics” at the service of one slogan or another, all that which mediocrity masks itself with in search of that lewd and repugnant acclaim which befalls it, that “infamous fame” Don Quixote spoke about.
Vladimir Mayakovsky commits suicide because he can no longer support the unbreathable atmosphere created by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which was inexorably advancing closed-rank towards its terrible victory during the second half of the 1920s, after Lenin’s death. That is when the poet decides to shoot himself. Recall his severe, passionate poem, “Conversation with Lenin,” in which the poet depicts before the revolutionary leader the panorama of a party and a state invaded and dominated little by little by the careerists, the servile, the bad communists, the traitors of the working class.
Poetry, as well as all art, was for Mayakovsky the assumption of a critical, alert and constant position; with the revolution yes, of course, but without mortgaging creative independence; aside from and against the conveniences of any tower – including the towers of the Kremlin that are constructed with the ivory of dogmatic doctrinairism, the blackmail of the mysterious and incomprehensible “reason of state,” and the hypocritical and mendacious admonition of “not giving weapons to the enemy.”
Real poetry cannot, in fact, be exploited by the enemy. (That kind of enemy fears it, opposes its very nature.) He tries to take advantage of poetry; in the long run it turns against him. It turns against him and smashes him because authentic art is always revolutionary under all circumstances. A detailed study should be made to explain why, and this is not at all accidental, the suppression of liberty by bureaucracies which have managed to usurp leading posts in the victorious Communist parties (and also in those parties which have yet to take power) invariably commences with a concentrated offensive against writers and the free expression of their literary thinking. It is followed by an extension of this offensive – often confronting less resistance – to the remaining spheres of public activity. At a given moment in the development of the new state, a certain political strata suddenly feels compelled to correct and reprimand writers for supposed “deviations” of a doctrinal or thematic nature in their works.
This would not be any more important than the acceptance, debate or denial of the criteria expressed, except that these criteria emanate from precisely those entities which dispose of a certain quantity of power. Consequently they end up by adding to their not very innocent reprimands the material and concrete aspects of their criticism. And this is all part of the voluminous circumlocution of “administrative measures” discrediting the writer concerned in the spheres of social life and literature.
This same discrediting, which was attempted against Mayakovsky in his time, was levelled shortly after against Isaac Babel – a magnificent revolutionary novelist! – even if in his case it did not lead to suicide. Today, at a distance of many years, we are reminded of Babel’s tragedy by a prologue to a recently published Spanish re-edition of The Red Cavalry.
Until very recently, the new generations of the capitalist world completely ignored Isaac Babel, and we do not know if his work has been republished in the Soviet Union. Babel thus reappears as an absolutely new writer to all. The mass of indispensable information which would enable a new generation to develop a clear, free consciousness of historical memory was never transmitted – and not only with respect to Babel. Such information is invaluable to every revolutionary with a critical attitude in coping with the tasks of the present, and that is exactly why the bureaucracy evades it so cautiously.
When Isaac Babel’s book appeared for the first time in Russia, it immediately provoked a very severe criticism in the organ of the Red Army – that incarnation of the armed forces of the revolution. Significantly, this criticism came from the pen of Semyon Budyonny, the head of the Red Cavalry, the entity whose participation in the civil war was the theme of Isaac Babel’s work. The polemic became generalized in the Soviet press, with renowned persons participating for and against, since in those times this type of democratic discussion was still possible in the USSR.
Isaac Babel reaped the harvest of his literary work a few years later, in a concentration camp, where he ended up without any public explanation or clarification. (This prologue is a narration by his daughter in a reticent, anguished and confused language, since no precise, sure information was ever obtained. The fact is that Babel’s magnificent talent disappeared from the horizon, lost forever. In the history of Russian literature only a beautiful book of essays and a few loose pages remain ... Well, Isaac Babel was unable to commit suicide.)
But we are dealing here with another problem: Mayakovsky, Babel, and later Essenin – poetry, poets, literature, historical memory, but a very different problem. Was the criticism made by Semyon Budyonny, the military hero, against Isaac Babel, the poetic hero, just, honest and healthy? And, what is more important, since it involved two revolutionists, was it a matter between two fighters for socialism? No; it absolutely was not an honest or healthy criticism considering the political context in which it took place.
Budyonny accused Babel of slandering the Red Cavalry in his writings and of deforming the character of the personalities involved. The truth is that Babel had been discovered, as a writer, by Trotsky. Trotsky had written a few articles of warm encouragement to the young author, and the latter was a political sympathizer of the creator of the Red Army.
At that time in Russia, the “Military Opposition” (consisting of Stalin, Voroshilov and a few other leaders, Budyonny among them) was carrying on a struggle to the death against Trotsky. Trotsky had not yet been removed from power by the Stalin camarilla. Political interests, which least of all had to do with a struggle over doctrinal principles – and even less to do with the question of preserving revolutionary purity of literature – trapped Isaac Babel between the gears of its wheels, crushed him, and tore him asunder by the time the Stalin faction had triumphed. This was the essence of a malign literary criticism full of twisted and notorious undercurrents.
But if we have recalled these events, it is to speak about Cuba, about today’s revolutionary Cuba and the attitude of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) to the works of Herberto Padilla and Anton Arrufat.
The UNEAC leaders are very young and did not have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with, or get to know in a direct way, all the experience of how Stalinism, step by step and against the Soviet Communist Party, slowly usurped power until it had erased any trace, alive, real and revolutionary, of the principles Lenin had fought for. And it also seems as if there has not been anyone among the older revolutionary generations who could explain to Cuban youth the vicissitudes, pitfalls, defeats, which the world communist movement has had to suffer during a long history of usurpations, deformations and betrayals, which began with Lenin’s death and have still not ended in our own day.
A tremendous and incredible historical amnesia exists in Cuba and in all of Latin America. This contains the danger that revolutionaries of all countries may fall into the same negative experiences of which there are so many examples in the history of the Soviet and international communist movement. But there are books, there are documents, there are publications and it is unjustifiable that they not be read by the revolutionary youth of Cuba and all countries of the Americas in order to forewarn our revolution and our movement lest identical errors befall us; errors which history has already proven to be real betrayals of communism.
Mutatis mutandis, these are the grave risks involved in the type of criticism which the UNEAC has expounded about the poetry of Herberto Padilla and Anton Arrufat. That criticism prompted Julio Cortazar’s nonconformity in an article in Le Nouvel Observateur of Paris during the first week of April. Cortazar’s article, reproduced in Mexico shortly thereafter, is a serene, honest and clear exposition, in keeping with the spirit of the Cuban revolution. It cannot be taken in any instance as an enemy attack.
I am absolutely in agreement with Cortazar’s article in Le Nouvel Observateur. But there is more, much more still; the matter cannot be limited to the defense of one poet, although Cortazar has the indisputable right of not wanting to carry things further.
Nevertheless, from a Marxist point of view, the thesis maintained by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists is completely unacceptable. UNEAC questions the revolutionary criticism which Herberto Padilla’s poetry presents of an indisputable objective reality: the reality of the Stalinist era and its horrors, for example, a criticism which UNEAC scandalously rejects in its official resolution of October 28, 1968.
What is being debated here is a problem of principles. It seems evident that UNEAC does not understand at all the methodology of materialist dialectics in the field of art. My position on this is not recent: There have already been a few years since it was presented from a theoretical point of view, on one hand; and it is clearly reflected in my novels (unfortunately unknown in Cuba) on the other hand.
During my most recent trip to Cuba, in January of 1968, where I went as part of a jury on the subject of novels convoked by the Casa de las Americas, I presented the following points. (I do not remember the dates of the conference, although the copy I left is undoubtedly in the Casa archives.) Following are the first three points of this material, which was entitled, Theoretical Schema on the Problems of Art and Liberty.
- Art, as an ideological superstructure, reflects the interests, the situation and the contradictions of the society in which it is produced and of the historical stage in which one is living. At the same time, for itself and by itself, insofar as it is an activity of historical thought, art transcends such a reflection. It emancipates itself from its immediate conditioning factors: society, the class struggle, politics, etc. Art as art can only appear and endure by means of a human determination superior to the immediate realities of the social and political life in which it develops. This human determination is nothing else but liberty.
- Liberty, as the knowledge and overcoming of necessity, expresses itself and realizes itself in the criticism of its object, that is, in its nonconformity with it: It does not conform with its object, it does not submit to the form and the content of its object, but instead proposes to give it its own content (impresses upon it its own movement as a negation of the negation) and, therefore, transforms it, substituting for its form a superior and more advanced form.
- The object of liberty and of art is one and the same, man’s being, man himself. Liberty and art (the same as philosophy and science) are nothing else but purely human, unalienable and immediately present. From this we can conclude that criticism of an object (the very reason for its existence) will always and in every case appear as constant unconformity with respect to concrete man and his specific environment, whatever the historical and social surroundings in which that man is located.
Consequently art leads to the dialectical negation of every alienated society and history, including socialist society and history, preceding the establishment of universal communism, which will be the beginning of disalienation in the natural history of humanity.
Last updated on 25 June 2009