Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


Art as the Cognition of Life

Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky
Art as the Cognition of Life
translated and edited by Frederick S. Choate
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan 1998, pp. 526

VORONSKY’S spectre has been haunting us for decades. Delicate traces of his thought drape around the literature of Trotskyism, never being touched for fear they will fall away like cobwebs in an abandoned archive. His signatures are dutifully logged in the volumes of The Challenge of the Left Opposition. Serge’s compliments in The Writer’s Conscience are often repeated. Nadezhda Mandlestam’s memoirs refer to an altogether less delicate character – a capable polemical brawler and an effective political operator – but her relentless pursuit of justice for Osip leaves her scant resource to expend on such a complex character marginal to her mission.

Voronsky’s own early memoirs, In Search of the Waters of Life and Death, have been out of print for many years, and deal only with his earliest revolutionary years. Sufficiently free of oppositional taint were they that Martin Lawrence was able to publish the English translation. It has not been suggested (as far as I know) that the text was corrupt, and Lawrence was still publishing Trotsky only a short time before, so we can regard the text as honest. There is some reason to believe it is abbreviated however – I have not been able to obtain a Russian-language edition to make comparisons.

Robert Maguire’s Red Virgin Soil examined Voronsky’s later work, in his capacity as editor of the distinguished journal of the same name. Maguire’s account is certainly the best available, detailed and systematic.

In defining his targets for examining The KGB’s Literary Archive, Vitaly Shentalinsky named Voronsky as one of his 13 to be exhumed. He delivered very little on Voronsky directly, but interesting sidelights on him appear in the chapters on Gorky, Babel and Pilnyak especially.

Shentalinsky gives no satisfactory account of the cases he championed that did not make it to publication in his book. We learn that his persistence failed to recover Voronsky’s KGB dossier from the Lubyanka. However, we find Shentalinsky’s name cited with thanks by Choate in his introduction. It may be therefore that there was at least some material found that was not published by Shentalinsky but which was made available to Choate.

After so much ‘prefiguring’ of Voronsky, it is good to have the substance available. We owe a debt of gratitude to Choate and Mehring Books for assembling this collection and publishing it in an affordable and well-produced paperback edition. Mehring Books is the publishing arm of the Socialist Equality Party, probably best known as the current led by David North, emerging from the disintegration of the Healyite international. Reports and opinions of this current are made available on the World Socialist Website. They have produced a number of important books in recent years, which contribute to the struggle to reassemble a revolutionary movement. It would be an excellent thing if their collection of the writings of Joffe could be made available in English. Choate also promises a full biography of Voronsky, which is greatly to be welcomed.

The collection consists of 26 articles and six appendices. It begins and ends with Voronsky writing on Gorky. Two youthful polemical pieces on Gorky from 1911 show Voronsky’s determination to take a fair and balanced view of any writer’s contribution. ‘God building’ was still a live issue in 1911, and Voronsky is careful to distance himself from it, while promoting Gorky for the freshness and depth of his descriptive writing, and his ability to create empathy in the reader with downtrodden characters. In the final piece in the collection, Voronsky reflects on Gorky six months after his death. (This item was among the papers seized on Voronsky’s final arrest in 1937, allowing the hope to exist that the other documents may still be held somewhere in the archives.)

Voronsky recounts his meetings with Gorky before and after the revolution. There is a vivid account of Gorky’s discussions with Lenin on what the state could afford to spend on literature during the famine. He describes Gorky’s tremendous energy and productivity in his final years. Shentalinsky’s material on Gorky provides another side to the picture. His Gorky was becoming aware of the tightness of Yagoda’s net around him, and of Stalin’s clever manipulation of the opportunities presented to him. Voronsky seeks to put Gorky above the vituperative literary-political debates of the 1920s and early 1930s, probably in part at least the better to defend himself through association with Gorky. It will be some time before the material and the thinking is available for a credible life of Gorky.

After the revolution, Voronsky worked first in Odessa, and later in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where he edited the newspaper journal Rabochii Krai (Workers’ Land). Here he renewed his friendship with Frunze, who was in charge of the region. Later he was to advance the literary work of Pilnyak, whose famous fictionalised account of the killing of Frunze had the bleakest of repercussions for the whole of Soviet literature.

From Rabochii Krai the material collected here is capable, but not outstanding. A routine piece of journalism on the separation of the orthodox church from the state, and an item of regional patriotism praising the redness of Ivanovo-Vosnesensk do nothing to suggest future greatness. Two pieces from this period on Plekhanov are somewhat better, giving a fairer and more balanced view than the better-known contemporary writings by Trotsky and Lenin.

In 1921, Voronsky moved to Moscow to edit Krasnaia Nov (Red Virgin Soil), with the explicit support of Lenin, and prompted by Gorky. This new literary journal was intended to be the first Soviet equivalent to the traditional Russian ‘thick journals’, the heavyweight literary and critical publications that had maintained debate among the former ruling classes.

As Choate’s selection ably demonstrates, Voronsky set about finding and promoting the best Russian literature of the time. One envies Choate the rewards and difficulties of making a selection from such a treasure house.

The first selection is a review of H.G. Wells’ Russia in the Shadows, and a defence of it against the vociferous Whites. Wells had come to the same conclusions as Ransome and Phillips-Price, namely that only the Bolsheviks had the capability to offer solutions to Russia’s social and economic crisis, in the aftermath of Tsarism, war and counter-revolution. Voronsky’s report is kinder and fairer than both Trotsky’s and Lenin’s.

The breadth of Voronsky’s coverage was to be impressive. Articles on Freud and Freudianism, as well as commentaries on Einstein, were to fuel debate in the pages of Krasnaia Nov.

In 1922, we see Voronsky getting down to serious business, with the first major article presenting and promoting Pilnyak. A series flowed from this, bringing to public attention such new stars as Zamyatin and Babel. And the business was to become more serious than Voronsky could have imagined. Literary-political discussions had an intensity about them that would appear to today’s reader as preposterous as the Burchill–Paglia [1] correspondence. But they contained at their heart a conflict of views about the nature of the revolution itself, which Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution was perhaps to make more explicit than any other writer whose work has come to us in English. Of course, too, the continued embittering, grinding shortages of paper, ink, transportation and so on could not fail to raise the temperature of differences between literary tendencies.

The ‘Na Postu’ (On Guard) group, in common with the Proletkult and the Futurists (collectively and rather inaccurately regarded as the ‘ultra left’), expressed and developed a hostility towards the culture of the pre-revolutionary world. While the Bolsheviks, especially through Lunacharsky’s ‘Commissariat of Enlightenment’, had been willing to let a thousand flowers bloom, their direct policies for culture were formed out of distinctly conservative preferences. They nationalised publication rights to classic literature, and, as soon as resources permitted, produced cheap bulk editions for libraries, reading rooms and schools, as well as for public sale. Proletkult, under the leadership of Bogdanov, heroically attempted to match this with their own cheap or free editions of science fiction by Bogdanov and his followers. According to Stites (in Revolutionary Dreams), these were frequently used as toilet paper by the peasant recipients.

In 1923, Voronsky found it necessary to respond to Na Postu’s attacks on the ‘fellow-travellers’ (non-party writers), many of whom were the writers featured in Krasnaia Nov. An illustration of the complexity of these tendency debates is to be found with that interesting character Sosnovsky. Later to become an intransigent pillar of the Left Opposition (curiously, his articles in the Bulletin of the Opposition seem to be the only substantial writings therein never to have been published in English), Voronsky finds him the lone voice of reason in Na Postu’s journal for his description of them as ‘brave schoolboys who decide to go to Africa to hunt elephants with penknives’. Vardin, a main leader of Na Postu, was an important Zinovievite who discovered himself able to sign the documents of the Unified Opposition precisely at the time such gestures had become obviously useless.

In Sharp Phrases and the Classics, Voronsky defends the Bolsheviks’ republication of the ‘bourgeois classics’ in reasonable and reasoned tone. He supports the development of a new literature about the communist epoch, describing the emergence of new human values of collectivism and audacity in struggle. However, he finds the examples of this new literature promoted by Na Postu to be unformed and tentative. He cites Rosa Luxemburg’s comments on the explosive emergence of the three giants of Russian literature – Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoyevsky – in unmistakable opposition to the declining bourgeois culture in which they lived. Such sudden changes could certainly happen again, he implies, but had equally certainly not happened yet. This line of thinking does not undergo much development in the course of the ensuing polemics, disappointingly. The ears of any old-time Trotskyist always prick up at the mention of sudden changes; we scent the air for whiffs of ‘combined and uneven development’. Perhaps we even hope for the revelation of one of those laws of artistic development which Trotsky teases us with in Literature and Revolution, without ever elucidating. But if they were ever solid, on this occasion they melt away into air.

Na Postu, Proletkult, LEF and others were not to be so easily turned from their attack. In the case of Proletkult, at least there were major historical scores to be settled, as Bogdanov sought to reclaim the ground he had lost to Lenin following his removal from the leadership many years previously. Na Postu saw membership of the party as a unique indicator of the status and quality of a writer, and strove with ever greater energy to undermine Voronsky’s promotion of the fellow-travellers. And it was true that some at least of the fellow-travellers were not reticent in their criticisms of the revolutionary state, retaining a distanced cynicism from it, and a compassion for those caught up in its contradictions. The judgement of seven decades has been that Zamyatin, Babel and Pilnyak are rewarding reading, while the names championed by Na Postu (with the exception of Bdenny) are now unknown. Whatever differences this reviewer might find with Voronsky’s methods in the debates that followed, Voronsky picked all the winners and marked all the cards. We owe his memory plenty for that.

The development of Voronsky’s argument is documented in a series of articles, Art as the Cognition of Life and the Contemporary World, On Proletarian Art and the Artistic Policy of Our Party, On Artistic Truth, culminating in the 1928 essay The Art of Seeing the World. This last is by far the most convincing of the sequence, mainly I think because it least depends on Voronsky’s repeated attempts to define art and to base his policy proposals on his definitions. Even here he claims the right to recognise ‘true art’, and he entangles himself in trying to insist that ‘objective beauty exists in nature and the artist discovers it for us in his creations’.

Somewhere near the centre of Voronsky’s defence of classical and realist literature is his conception of the writer grasping aspects of reality as they emerge in natural and social processes, reflecting on them and then presenting them again to his audience in such a way that his reflection brings a new view of things (sometimes he calls this view a ‘truth’) into the minds of his readers. Regrettably, Choate finds it necessary to translate this central creative/reflective process as ‘cognizing’. It is perhaps difficult to bring forward an alternative term without actually damaging Voronsky’s position, but all the same it strikes me as a hideously clumsy term, dragging behind it a Hegelian baggage train, that gets in the way of understanding. And it limits the role of the writer to that of a kind of social-researcher, a function that ought to be recognised as useful by the state even when it appears to be antagonistic. In doing so, it blunts the argument for the freedom of artistic ‘expression’.

And for all that one wants to support Voronsky in his heroic defence of the ‘fellow-travellers’ against the Stalinists and the rabid Zinovievite careerists of Na Postu (a defence that eventually cost him his career and his life), it was a defence specific to the group of writers that he had taken it upon himself to promote and then defend. It could not be brought forward to protect other creative tendencies – futurists, acmeists, imageists, zaumniks and many others who had no concern with ‘realism’. Moreover, it is not an argument that could be effectively generalised beyond literature to other arts – music, painting, ballet.

Voronsky’s life was highly productive, and ultimately heroic. Mehring Books have done very well to assemble such a fine collection, albeit a small sample, of his work, and we should be grateful to them. A minor criticism is that they have seen fit to append a ‘slightly revised’ version of Trotsky’s 1927 speech Culture and Socialism which is not an improvement on Brian Pearce’s original, and uncredited, translation.

J.J. Plant


1. Julie Burchill, the journalist, not Ian Birchall the revolutionary and writer.

Updated by ETOL: 29.10.2011