Cliff Slaugther 1980

Literature and Revolution: Trotsky

Written: 1980;
Source: Marxism, Ideology, and Literature Humanities Press, 1980;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for, February 2008.

More than once Georg Lukacs gave a purported summary of his own place in the history of Marxist work on literature and aesthetics. These accounts refer from time to time to the writings of Plekhanov and Franz Mehring in the period of the Second International, in which they had repulsed idealist attacks on historical materialism, and in the course of so doing had demonstrated the social and historical roots of literary works and tendencies, [1] usually in opposition to neo-Kantian critics. However, Lukacs (for reasons which are well-known, and to which we refer in our next chapter) took the greatest care to avoid any treatment of the one Marxist, Trotsky, whose work on literature was carried out after Lukacs’ own entry into the communist movement, that is to say in the revolutionary wave which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and overwhelmed the reformist Second International.

Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, [2] together with a number of other articles and speeches of the 1920s, was concerned primarily to lay the basis for a Marxist response to the cultural problems raised by the Russian Revolution, and in particular to answer those who advocated a programme of ‘proletarian culture’. Here, in the turmoil of unprecedented social changes, Marxist theory and practice were put to the decisive test. Unless ‘Marxists’ in the field of literature and literary criticism see Marxism as an abstract, general doctrine, developing independently of history and purely through scholarly research and speculation, they surely cannot separate themselves and their work from the development of Marxism itself. Lukacs is one of those many Marxists who are not slow to comment on the effects of Stalinism on literature and criticism, as well as the effects of the developments in capitalism which have matured alongside it. From the standpoint of Marxist theory, it is surely unlikely that there could be any rediscovery and development of Marxism [3] against the Stalinist distortions, independently of the actual struggle which Marxists (and in particular Trotsky) carried out against Stalinism, including the proletarian culture myth which accompanied its early development. We shall suggest in later chapters that Lukacs, along with Goldmann and others, rejecting any consideration of Trotsky’s work, and at the same time claiming to disavow Stalinism, was fundamentally at one with Stalin’s positions on political and historical questions, and that this is intimately connected with his writings on literature. In the most simple terms, those who, in one way or another, came to defend the bureaucratic realpolitik, even if they did not like the look of some of its obvious theoretical and practical consequences (which they characterised abstractly and inadequately as ‘dogmatic sectarianism’), could not avoid the danger of thereby turning away from the historical and methodological principles of Marxism. Trotsky defended and developed those principles in the whole struggle against Stalinism, and in Literature and Revolution.

The First World War and the October Revolution put an end to the period in which the development of Marxism could be seen as primarily the defence and extension of a body of knowledge against its opponents in philosophy, political economy, historiography and political theory. Now the relation between theory and practice comes to the fore. There is the appearance of literary schools and tendencies which do not content themselves with an implicit or even explicit attitude towards Marxist theory, but take up a definite position in relation to the Revolution itself. The world war has a shattering effect on the relation between capitalism and its literary and artistic world, an effect then compounded by the October Revolution and the revolutions and counter-revolutions of post-war Europe. Marxists, on their side, feel called upon now to understand and develop their theory as ‘a guide to action’, and this means dealing with questions of ‘culture and revolution’ concretely, practically, and not merely abstractly and in general. It means finding answers in strategy and tactics – with ‘cultural policy’ as a part of such strategy and tactics – to the problems of actual development of organisation and consciousness in the working class in its relation with other classes and strata, including the literary intelligentsia. This did not mean that questions of the nature of culture were reducible to tactical considerations. Questions of the evaluation of literary tendencies, of the quality of literature and art produced under the immediate impact of the Revolution, of state and party policy towards literature and art, all became inextricably and inevitably intertwined with the ‘question of questions’: what were the consequences of the fact that socialist revolution made its first break in a backward country, where those preconditions for socialism which Marx took to be the product of capitalist development were absent? This is of course a ‘cultural’ question of the first order. Around this issue the crucial historical struggle unfolded.

No sooner had the international working-class movement been split between communism and social democracy than communism itself faced a split no less profound: ‘socialism in a single country’, banking on the internal resources of Russia and stability in external relations, as Stalin proposed in the Autumn of 1924 (thus reviving an old theme of social democracy); or the strategy of world socialist revolution, continuing what had been taken as read by communists before Stalin’s innovation, i.e., that while Tsarist Russia was the ‘weakest link in the chain of imperialism’, thus providing the conditions for a successful proletarian overturn, the conditions for ‘the victory of socialism’ did not exist within Russia but only on a world scale, so that the future of the workers’ state in Russia depended on the extension of the revolution at least to the advanced countries of Western Europe. It is only in the context of the opening up of the struggle between these two perspectives, with all the associated questions of the cultural backwardness of Russia, that Trotsky’s attack in Literature and Revolution on the concept and programme of a proletarian culture can be understood. In this controversy Trotsky was compelled to return many and revolution’ concretely, practically, and not merely abstractly and in general. It means finding answers in strategy and tactics – with ‘cultural policy’ as a part of such strategy and tactics – to the problems of actual development of organisation and consciousness in the working class in its relation with other classes and strata, including the literary intelligentsia. This did not mean that questions of the nature of culture were reducible to tactical considerations. Questions of the evaluation of literary tendencies, of the quality of literature and art produced under the immediate impact of the Revolution, of state and party policy towards literature and art, all became inextricably and inevitably intertwined with the ‘question of questions’: what were the consequences of the fact that socialist revolution made its first break in a backward country, where those preconditions for socialism which Marx took to be the product of capitalist development were absent? This is of course a ‘cultural’ question of the first order. Around this issue the crucial historical struggle unfolded.

No sooner had the international working-class movement been split between communism and social democracy than communism itself faced a split no less profound: ‘socialism in a single country’, banking on the internal resources of Russia and stability in external relations, as Stalin proposed in the Autumn of 1924 (thus reviving an old theme of social democracy); or the strategy of world socialist revolution, continuing what had been taken as read by communists before Stalin’s innovation, i.e., that while Tsarist Russia was the ‘weakest link in the chain of imperialism’, thus providing the conditions for a successful proletarian overturn, the conditions for ‘the victory of socialism’ did not exist within Russia but only on a world scale, so that the future of the workers’ state in Russia depended on the extension of the revolution at least to the advanced countries of Western Europe. It is only in the context of the opening up of the struggle between these two perspectives, with all the associated questions of the cultural backwardness of Russia, that Trotsky’s attack in Literature and Revolution on the concept and programme of a proletarian culture can be understood. In this controversy Trotsky was compelled to return many times from questions of immediate policy to fundamental matters of the historical role of productive forces and technique and of the nature of cognition. This was hardly surprising, in view of the fateful issues involved. ‘Proletarian culture’ was essentially a narrow pragmatic conception of a new culture constructed on the foundations of the perceived characteristics of the working class and its revolution. It soon became the instrument of policy for those who, following Stalin and Bukharin, presented the ‘building of socialism’ in a national framework in similar pragmatic terms, disregarding the absence of any of the necessary cultural and productive conditions for socialism. Instead of a new culture eventually emerging from the acquisition and reworking of all past culture, the bureaucratic conception would soon require a ‘culture’ which could be summoned by order of state in order to confirm and support the lie that socialism could be achieved by a forced march which ignored the absence of the cultural preconditions for socialism. The enthusiasts of proletarian culture in the years immediately following the Revolution would have been horrified to know that they prepared the ground for the ‘illustrative literature’ of the ‘final victory of socialism’ in 1936.

Trotsky’s introduction to Literature and Revolution states his main point very clearly:

“It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture which is truly human.” [4]

As for ‘proletarian culture’ under capitalism, Trotsky restates Marx’s position, that the proletariat is in the first place an exploited class, separated by exploitation and oppression from the historical gains made by humanity in its struggle with nature. The proletariat develops class consciousness, concentrated into political strategy, tactics and organisation, together with the theoretical conquests which must enrich and develop through them. Only by abolishing itself as a class (by abolishing the property foundations of capitalist society) will the proletariat put itself in a position to acquire and develop culture. The bourgeoisie, before it comes to rule society, growing up in the pores of the feudal order, builds up its own type of private ownership, and along with this its schools, churches and academies, and trains its own corps of administrators, philosophers, architects, dramatists and poets; but the proletariat grows up in a capitalist society whose very condition of existence is that the proletariat shall have no property. With this lack of property and of any life relatively independent of the mode of exploitation carried out by the ruling class, the proletariat is deprived of culture in a way in which the nascent bourgeoisie was not. It can become conscious of its historical role and its aims only by becoming conscious of its lack of culture. Consequently, to proceed in cultural policy from the idea of an art and literature which correspond to the nature of this class is to court disaster, to fly in the face of reality:

“The proletarian has to have in art the expression of the new spiritual point of view which is just beginning to be formulated within him, and to which art must help him give form. This is not a state order, but an historic demand. Its strength lies in the objectivity of historic necessity. You cannot pass this by, nor escape its force.” [5]

The policy considerations which follow from this are not matters of whether to be more or less liberal in dealing with writers:

“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 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. 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.” [6]

(It is interesting to note the way in which the issues in this historic controversy are distorted in the extreme if they are viewed in an abstract ‘literary’ manner. For example, it is surely a travesty of the truth to suggest, as Raymond Williams does when discussing Lenin and Trotsky’s rejection of any policy of cultural directives, that it was ‘from the reservations’ [i.e. their reservations on complete liberty of expression] that the Stalinist ‘version of commitment’ [striking euphemism!] ‘became powerful’! At a stroke, by substituting the succession of concepts for the struggle of real forces, Williams erases the actual political and physical destruction of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s followers, a destruction which was the prerequisite for Stalin’s ‘version of commitment’. Williams writes as if there was a single continuous process ‘from the cause of humanity to the cause of the people to the revolution to the party to the [shifting] party line.’ [7] What we have here is, as so often, not an objective account of the sources, content and consequences of a particular theoretical and practical struggle [Trotsky’s battle with the advocates of proletarian culture, which merged in part with the battle against the bureaucracy’s ‘socialism in a single country’] but a deduction from the received truth that Stalinism found its source in elements already existing in the communism of Lenin and Trotsky.)

For all his opposition to any policy of ‘creation of literary schools by decree’, Trotsky was certainly not inclined to discuss literary tendencies solely in the terms they decided. His clash with the Russian Formalists, for example, is well known; and when some of the Futurists claimed that their work ‘freed art of its thousand-year-old bonds of bourgeoisdom’, Trotsky warned them of the dangers of sterility:

“The call of the Futurists to break with the past, to do away with Pushkin, to liquidate tradition, etc., has a meaning in so far as it is addressed to the old literary caste, to the closed-in circle of the intelligentsia. In other words, it has a meaning only in so far as the Futurists are busy cutting the cord which binds them to the priests of bourgeois literary tradition.

“But the meaninglessness of this call becomes evident as soon as it is addressed to the proletariat. The working class does not have to, and cannot break with literary tradition, because the working class is not in the grip of such tradition, The working class does not know the old literature, it still has to commune with it, it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him, and so overcome him. The Futurist break with the past is, after all, a tempest in the closed-in world of the intelligentsia which grew up on Pushkin, Fet, Tiutschev, Briusov, Balmont and Blok, and who are passive, not because they are infected with a superstitious veneration for the forms of the past, but because they have nothing in their soul which calls for new forms. They simply have nothing to say. They sing the old feelings over again with slightly new words. The Futurists have done well to push away from them. But it is not necessary to make a universal law of development out of the act of pushing away.” [8]

Estimating the prospects of these ‘revolutionary innovators of form’, Trotsky first took account of the concrete class relations within which their development took place. One should not draw mechanical conclusions from the fact that Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, seeking social equivalents for their ‘revolutionary’ formal experiments, embraced Mussolini’s brand of political originality. In Russia the Futurists’ demonstrative rebellion had coincided with the overthrow by the proletarian revolution of the conditions they despised. There was no time for their experimental forms and style to be incorporated by the old circles, as so often happens, ‘because these circles do not exist any longer’. In 1924 Trotsky could therefore envisage for Futurism ‘the possibility of a rebirth, of entering into the new art, not as an all-determining current, but as an important component part’. [9]

Trotsky’s comments on Futurism make clear that his insistence on judging art ‘by the standards of art’ and on appropriating the artistic traditions of the past did not imply a rejection in this field of the precepts of historical materialism. Against those who considered the work of art such a uniquely individual product that it could not be amenable to a historical materialist analysis, Trotsky replies along the line marked out by the writings of Marx on society and individuality:

“Individuality is a welding together of tribal, national, class, temporary and institutional elements and, in fact, it is in the uniqueness of this welding together, in the proportions of this psycho-chemical mixture, that individuality is expressed. One of the most important tasks of criticism is to analyze the individuality of the artist (that is, his art) into its component elements, and to show their correlations. In this way, criticism brings the artist closer to the reader, who also has more or less of a ‘unique soul’, ‘artistically’ unexpressed, ‘unchosen’, but none the less representing a union of the same elements as does the soul of a poet. So it can be seen that what serves as a bridge from soul to soul is not the unique, but the common. Only through the common is the unique known; the common is determined in man by the deepest and most persistent conditions which make up his ‘soul’, by the social conditions of education, of existence, of work, and of associations. The social conditions in historic human society are, first of all, the conditions of class affiliation. That is why a class standard is so fruitful in all fields of ideology, including art, and especially in art, because the latter often expresses the deepest and most hidden social aspirations.” [10]

Without equating art and ideology, Trotsky can still draw the conclusion that art serves ideological purposes. The producers of ideology in other fields, such as philosophy or historiography or law, do their work from the given starting point in scholarship within the discipline and with unquestioning acceptance of the material life upon which rest their assumptions and their very existence as specialists. The artist may well find it possible to work within the framework of traditional forms, continuing to find these a vehicle for his inspiration, only to find himself one day faced with the results of revolutionary changes in the material on which he works, the consequence of imperceptible accumulated changes to which he had been blind. Perhaps the greatest artists, as Hegel suggested, are those who are able to raise their art, through original formal developments, to the level of comprehension in imagination of the implications of these tendencies beneath the appearances. In Trotsky’s view the October Revolution had clearly revealed this relation between art-forms and the content of social life:

“To speak of the bourgeois character of that literature which we call non-October, does not therefore necessarily mean to slander the poets who are supposedly serving art and not the bourgeoisie. For where is it written that it is impossible to serve the bourgeoisie by means of art? Just as geologic landslides reveal the deposits of earth layers, so do social landslides reveal the class character of art. Non-October art is struck by a deathly impotence for the very reason that death has struck those classes to which it was tied by its whole past. Without the bourgeois land-holding system and its customs, without the subtle suggestions of the estate and of the salon, this art sees no meaning in life, withers, becomes moribund and is reduced to nothing.” [11]

In his controversy with the Formalists Trotsky refused to accept Shklovsky’s notion of an aesthetic or artistic reality totally independent of social conditions (Shklovsky had drawn this conclusion from the striking resemblances in both content and treatment of narrative in cultures quite separate one from another). Besides systematic analysis of the formal structure of works of literature, art, architecture, etc., a knowledge of the historical sources of the artist’s inspiration is necessary:

“The methods of formal analysis are necessary, but insufficient. The architectural scheme of the Cologne cathedral can be established by measuring the base and the height of its arches, by determining the three dimensions of its naves, the dimensions and the placement of the columns, etc. But without knowing what a mediaeval city was like, what a guild was, or what was the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Cologne cathedral will never be understood. The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft self-sufficient unto itself, devitalizes and kills art. The very need of such an operation is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.” [12]

Trotsky felt no contradiction, then, between the recognition of art’s unique methods, its own standards, ‘its own law’s of development’, [13] on the one hand, and the recognition of the determination of its content by ‘social being’, the history of which is the history of class struggles on definite production foundations, on the other:

“A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why ... It [art] is not a disembodied clement feeding on itself, but a function of social man indissolubly tied to his life and environment.” [14]

Trotsky goes on to make an analogy with the vital but nonetheless relative importance of form in the historical development of law. By its nature law demands formal consistency, internal coherence, and a certain rigidity. However,

“Its moving force lies in economics – in class contradictions. The law gives only a formal and an internally harmonized expression of these phenomena, not of their individual peculiarities, but of their general character, that is, of the elements that are repetitive and permanent in them. We can see now with a clarity which is rare in history how new law is made. It is not done by logical deduction, but by empirical measurement and by adjustment to the economic needs of the new ruling class.” [15]

* * *

It is useful to dwell briefly on Trotsky’s views on individuality and individualism, since he needs to consider these questions rather more concretely, i.e., in terms of the whole social formation and its development, than could Marx in his more abstract analysis of basic economic forms (though to the latter should be added his brief characterisation of bourgeois individualism – in The German Ideology – as a ‘historically justified illusion’). Just as the Revolution could provoke a shock of recognition of the social interconnections of law and of art, so, Trotsky suggested, did the revolutionary epoch throw a brutally clear light on the reality of bourgeois individualism. Individual enterprise could no longer provide the necessary framework to develop mankind’s productive forces; the emancipation of men from the social order based on individual capitalist appropriation was now a question of socialising the ownership and control of the means of production; individual freedom could in no way be achieved in opposition to that collective force which must expropriate the bourgeoisie, nor any longer in pursuit of a self-interest which by some ‘hidden hand’ could be thought to produce universal good. The social order which sustained the bourgeois idea of individual autonomy and freedom had reached the point of its imminent negation. But it was a fact that art and literature, throughout the era of capitalism’s challenge to feudal absolutism and then of its ascendancy, had, with whatever variations, fed upon that same individualist idea:

“Having broken up human relations into atoms, bourgeois society, during the period of its rise, had a great aim for itself. Personal emancipation was its name. Out of it grew the dramas of Shakespeare and Goethe’s ‘Faust’. Man placed himself in the centre of the universe, and therefore in the centre of art also. This theme sufficed for centuries. In reality, all modern literature has been nothing but an enlargement of this theme.

“But to the degree in which the internal bankruptcy of bourgeois society was revealed as a result of its unbearable contradictions, the original purpose, the emancipation and qualification of the individual, faded away and was relegated more and more into the sphere of a new mythology, without soul or spirit.” [16]

The great literature of the whole period of the rise and domination of the bourgeoisie is thus one of the permanent gains of culture, representing and celebrating as it does the first step to breaking the chains formed by the conviction of direct dependence on God and the unchallengeable character of the coercive force of hereditary authority. In the art and literature inspired by this historical advance men find the beginnings of the confidence needed to measure their world and experience by a human standard. Work, love, life and death, age and youth, can be faced as problems of human need, problems to be faced and resolved in the realm of the human and not accepted as visitations of blind fate or divine providence. Such was the promise. Even though poets and novelists glimpsed the anti-human and anti-artistic tendencies of capitalism, they were able to express their criticisms in terms of the humanist and individualist tradition, i.e., in terms of the conditions for individual fulfillment and not by appeal to some mystical authority. But then comes the time when the gains of the bourgeois era can be preserved and developed only by the surpassing of this framework, by ending bourgeois relations and the bourgeois class as such. An individuality which appeals to the humanist tradition and asserts itself against rather than through the collective actions necessary for human emancipation will end in impotence and mysticism:

“Our age is an age of great aims. This is what stamps it. But the grandeur of these aims lies in man’s effort to free himself from mystic and from every other intellectual vagueness and in his effort to reconstruct society and himself in accord with his own plan. This, of course, is much bigger than the child’s play of the ancients which was becoming to their childish age, or the mediaeval ravings of monks, or the arrogance of individualism which tears personality away from the collectivity, and then, draining it to the very bottom, pushes it off into the abyss of pessimism, or sets it on all fours before the remounted bull Apis.” [17]

The ‘great aims’ of the twentieth century, however, could not be achieved except by the class of proletarians, who had yet to appropriate the indispensable gains made by bourgeois individualism. And this appropriation was a condition of the elaboration of any post-revolutionary culture. Against those who set up bourgeois individualism in art and literature as an abstract opposite, Trotsky wrote:

“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.” [18]

The last phrase has now a ring of bitter irony. Beyond that threshold on which the Soviet working class stood in 1924 was not at all a path of cultural advance on which they could form and develop individuality, but one upon which that individuality was sacrificed on the altar of a bureaucracy whose ‘culture’ became more and more a mixture of ideological distortion and manipulation, with the old ‘Great Russian’ coarseness, swaggering and bullying, now arming itself with modern techniques of terror. Half a century later, it is now well known that, despite the previous Stalinist success in suppressing the historical record, Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin and his faction (representing the interests of the bureaucracy with which it merged more and more) began in alliance with Lenin on Lenin’s proposal (see especially, M. Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle). One of the memoranda written by Lenin in the course of this fight, and acknowledged officially to exist only in 1956, brings out particularly clearly the cultural implications of this fight:

But now, we must, in conscience, admit the contrary; we call ours an apparatus which, in fact, is still quite alien to us; which is bourgeois and tsarist mishmash, and which it was in no way possible to get rid of in five years without the help of other countries as we were ‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine. It is quite natural in such circumstances that the ‘freedom to withdraw from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian, the chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a lover of violence, as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietized workers will drown in that sea of chauvinistic, Great-Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk. [19]

This was only one of a series of notes and letters, dictated by Lenin during his final illness, aimed at Stalin and his group in the apparatus. The dreadful backwardness in production, the exhaustion of the masses in revolution and civil war, which as always produced its reaction, and the isolation following the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 – these were the conditions which favoured the dominance of that faction that rested on the personnel of the old state machine and on the better-off peasants and small entrepreneurs given a new lease of life by the unavoidable New Economic Policy of 1921. The programme of ‘socialism in a single country’, announced nine months after Lenin’s death and four months after the appearance of Literature and Revolution, was a succinct expression of the cultural as well as the political horizons of the bureaucracy and its allies. Had the next generations of Russian workers been able to see Literature and Revolution (as they certainly still are not), it is doubtful if they would have shared the ‘anti-humanism’ of some of our latter-day ‘Marxists’, given such passages as:

“What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoievsky, 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.” [20]

Trotsky refused to ignore the fact that because of its position as an oppressed class, the proletariat after conquering power remained ‘uneducated aesthetically’, however ‘spiritually and therefore, artistically ... sensitive’. [21] For this reason, as we have seen, he took issue with the Futurists on their dismissal of individualism. They took from the Revolution what corresponded to their own feelings, seeing in the abstraction of the ‘collectivist nature’ of the proletariat the equivalent of their own rejection of a jaded individualism in literary and artistic circles. In this way, said Trotsky, they themselves fell into an ‘egocentrism...extreme individualism’, ignoring the cultural needs of the masses, who must absorb and transcend the old culture. Literature and Revolution is the clearest statement of this necessity, and there Trotsky achieves a noble and inspiring vision of the ‘truly human’ culture of the future. But more than this was needed, as Trotsky well knew. For the mass of workers to become ‘aesthetically educated’, to ‘absorb and assimilate the elements of the old cultures’, was not a matter of repeating the history of those cultures but rather of a ‘free and conscious’ plan and choice based upon them. The condition of this freedom was a material one: the productive foundation for socialism laid by capitalist development itself. Marx had written in 1845:

“... this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their worldhistorical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business (‘all the old crap’) would necessarily be restored ... “ [22]

Revolution in backward Russia confirmed this cryptic formula. It was entirely consistent for the bureaucracy, which rejected the strategy of world revolution necessary to transform that situation, to reject also the cultural policy conclusions drawn by Trotsky:

“The proletariat also needs a continuity of creative tradition. At the present time the proletariat realizes 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.” [23]

In later years Trotsky returned to the question of the relation between the artist’s individuality and the Revolution. In the period of his exile, when the Stalinist betrayal and terror were at their height, the immediate question was no longer one of the policy of the young Soviet state and the principles which should guide it. The victorious ‘Thermidorean bureaucracy’, as Trotsky termed it, had now successfully transformed the world communist movement into its instrument. Its use of the ‘weapon of culture’ within the USSR, and internationally, demanded a literature which was above all acquiescent in the vast lie machine and brutal terror with which all opposition was being liquidated. In a situation where Fascism had triumphed in Italy, Germany and Spain and a world war had become inevitable, and in which the revolutionary movement was in danger of total destruction at the hands of the Stalinist leadership, Trotsky saw a world – historical crisis of all mankind, in which the relation between political commitment and freedom of artistic creation was thrown into the sharpest possible relief, particularly in contrast to the conformist literature required by Stalinism. It is for this reason that ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’, [24] published over the names of Andre Breton and Diego Rivera in the autumn of 1938 and drafted in collaboration with Trotsky, constitutes more than a propaganda manifesto (though in the latter aspect it has inestimable importance). It bears the same relation to the theory and practice of a Lukacs of those years as did Trotsky’s mortal combat with Stalinism to Khrushchev’s ‘if we had opened our mouths, we would have lost our heads’ in the ‘secret speech’ at the Twentieth Congress:

“In the contemporary world we must recognise the ever more widespread destruction of those conditions under which intellectual creation is possible. From this follows of necessity an increasingly manifest degradation not only of the work of art but also of the specifically ‘artistic’ personality.” [25]

At the historical limit of the development of capitalist society, then, the inimicality of capitalism to artistic production reaches its own extreme. Again, how shall the artist defend his individuality and respond to the need to create, unless he identifies with those forces which can remove the social order, which was built on individual appropriation?

“Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organisations which hold out the possibility of escaping from his isolation. But if he is to avoid complete demoralisation, he cannot remain there, because of the impossibility of delivering his own message and the degrading servility which these organisations exact from him in exchange for certain material advantages.” [26]

Breton and Rivera called upon artists and writers to turn to ‘those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to the revolution ... [and] who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to fruition, and along with it the ultimate free expression of all forms of human genius’. [27] Two conditions were required, if art were to play a revolutionary role. And here Trotsky (in a situation where, as we have noted, the relations are more starkly revealed) reverted to the positions he had first developed in Literature and Revolution. In the first place, there must be complete opposition to any restriction on artistic creation, let alone commands from above (whether from the state in the USSR and its apparatus abroad, or through the demands of capital):

“In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must under no pretext allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom for art?[28]

However, Trotsky and his collaborators affirm that not only the defence of this freedom but also the production of artistic works of true stature in our day will in their opinion come only from participation in the revolutionary struggle to resolve mankind’s mortal crisis:

“It should be clear by now that in defending freedom of thought we have no intention of justifying political indifference, and that it is far from our wish to revive a so-called ‘pure’ art which generally serves the extremely impure ends of reaction. No, our conception of the role of art is too high to refuse it an influence on the fate of society. We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution. But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.” [29]

Trotsky found himself at the very centre of the most critical development in Marxist theory and practice, in the Russian Revolution, and it is from the necessity of striving for an all-round development of Marxism to fight through the critical years which followed that the strength of his work on literature derives. All his resources had to be concentrated on the fundamental questions of historical materialism: the relation of intellectual or ‘spiritual’ culture to the development of productive forces as a whole; the relation between art’s own development and the stimulus and demands of the class struggle; the associated problem of the relation between individuality and social forms. These questions were certain to arise in acute form in the period of transition from capitalism; but because the first step in the socialist revolution had been taken in backward Russia, which then remained isolated, they came up for review and development in even sharper form. What is remarkable is that, in the context of those historical events and the political and theoretical battles in which he took the leading role, Trotsky was scrupulously careful to demarcate the specific problems presented by the analysis and understanding of art and literature, in their most fundamental relation to philosophy, to dialectical materialism. From what standpoint? It was not of course only a question of meticulous scholarship and breadth of vision, which characterise all Trotsky’s works. Like Marx, he wrote in order that others should learn to accept the same responsibilities as he had for the struggle for human emancipation. Revolutionary practice must proceed always in a struggle to master consciously all sides of the historical totality.

In his efforts to overcome the great problems which were accumulating in the field of cultural policy Trotsky felt compelled to correct all oversimplified and mechanical views of the sources of a new art. And here he expanded on the opinion we have already noted in Marx and many before him, that it is important to distinguish between the artistic and scientific modes of comprehending the world: in the field of poetry we deal with the process of feeling the world in images, and not with the process of knowing the world scientifically.’ Neither Trotsky nor any other Marxist pretended that this ‘feeling the world in images’ is an activity of which we have a scientific account. There is great scope for historical, biographical and psychological research on that score, and it is obvious that to think that somehow the secret of the process can be deduced from the general principles of Marxism would be nonsense. The works of artists come to be accepted by us as creative because we experience a transformation of our feelings on the reception and contemplation of images. This response is not totally separated from thinking and analysis (any more than is the work’s production) but neither is it the same thing. Why and exactly how it is that we are affected in this way by sensuous, representative images we do not know. But we can know from the study of history why it is that certain of these images and certain types of image-making arise and are important at particular times, or even for very long periods.

For example, Trotsky goes into some detail to ‘place’ the Futurists historically and to trace the effects of their history in a failure to achieve organic unity in their poetry. This analysis illuminates the problem of the specific importance of questions of form:

“Mayakovsky’s works have no peak; they are not disciplined internally. The parts refuse to obey the whole. Each part tries to be separate. It develops its own dynamics, without considering the welfare of the whole. That is why it is without entity or dynamics. The Futurists have not yet found a synthetic expression of words and images in their work.” [30]

It was particularly in criticising the work of the great Futurist poets that Trotsky found it necessary to emphasise the distinction between abstraction and scientific cognition, on the one hand, and artistic imagination, on the other. When poets embraced the cause of the October Revolution, and produced poetry in which they sought to express their new- found allegiance and enthusiasm, the results were almost always disappointing, to say the least. In rebelling against the pre-revolutionary world of conformist and conventional art these poets had rebelled also against the establishment to which that art-world was attached. They had found in the practice of their own art, with its invention of new styles of life as well as art, a way of taking strength from their profound conviction of the worn-out and debilitating nature of the old society. They were the latest in a long line of great bohemian rebels against bourgeois society, rebels whose social roots had been indicated by Marx in 1848 [31] and later by Plekhanov. [32] These Russian Futurists, however, were in full spate when they unexpectedly encountered a revolution:

“Futurists became Communists. By this very act they entered the sphere of more profound questions and relationships, which far transcended the limits of their own little world, and which were not quite worked out organically in their soul. That is why Futurists, even including Mayakovsky, are weakest artistically at those points where they finish as Communists. This is more the result of their spiritual past than of their social origin. The Futurist poets have not mastered the elements of the Communist point of view and world-attitude sufficiently to find an organic expression for them in words; they have not entered, so to speak, into their blood. That is why they are frequently subject to artistic and psychologic defeats, to stilted forms and to making much noise about nothing. In its most revolutionary and compelling works, Futurism becomes stylization.” [33]

These ‘stilted forms’, which so often gave the impression of a striving for effect (‘Mayakovsky shouts too often, where he should merely speak’) frustrated by some lack of inner resources, are the result, then, of the separation between the worlds of feeling of the artistic intelligentsia and of the working class, a separation which has profound historical roots and cannot be overcome by an effort of will any more than by decree. On its side the proletariat needs still to assimilate bourgeois culture. The artist, for his part, no matter how much he wishes to change his allegiance completely, cannot jump out of his skin. Again: it is one thing to understand something and express it logically, and quite another thing to assimilate it organically, reconstructing the whole system of one’s feelings. [34] Trotsky gave the example of Boris Pilnyak:

“One cannot approach art as one can politics, not because artistic creation is a religious rite or something mystical ... but because it has its own laws of development, and above all because in artistic creation an enormous role is played by subconscious processes – slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance, just because they are subconscious. It has been said that those writings of Pilnyak’s which are closer to Communism are feebler than those which are politically further away from us. What is the explanation? Why, just this, that on the rationalistic plane Pilnyak is ahead of himself as an artist ...” [35]

For the artist who proved capable of ‘reshaping the world of his feelings ... by means of a scientific programme ... the most difficult inner labour ... ‘, [36] there arose in any case the question of frankly recognising that the period after the Revolution was a transitional one, in which it would be sheer idealism to anticipate the later period of communism, in which the relations between art and industry, between mental and manual labour, between artist and audience, would be transformed:

“Art is created on the basis of a continual everyday, cultural, ideological interrelationship between a class and its artists. Between the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie and their artists there was no split in daily life. The artists lived, and still live, in a bourgeois milieu, breathing the air of bourgeois salons, they received and are receiving hypodermic inspirations from their class. Does the proletariat of today offer such a cultural-ideological milieu, in which the new artist may obtain, without leaving it in his day-to-day existence, all the inspiration he needs while at the same time mastering the procedures of his craft? No, the working masses are culturally extremely backward; the illiteracy or low level of literacy of the majority of workers presents in itself a very great obstacle to this. And above all, the proletariat, in so far as it remains a proletariat, is compelled to expend its best forces in political struggle, in restoring the economy, and in meeting elementary cultural needs ...” [37]

* * *

The problem of ‘realism’ in literature is not something separate from the question Marx had raised: how to explain the continued appeal of works of art produced by past cultures? At its simplest the unity of the two problems is posed by reformulating both: what reality do men find in works whose historical subject matter is remote from their own experiences? Just as Marx suggested that modern men found in the forms of Greek art the embodiment of attitudes to the world which coincided with the strivings necessitated and the future promised by their own relationship to nature and history, so Trotsky pointed to a real content in works of art which was not exhausted by the effects of the class structure of the society in which the artist lived. If Pushkin’s poetry could still arouse feelings which certainly did not result from any sympathy with the class whose characteristic assumptions and feelings he shared, there must be a reason. Pushkin expressed the standpoint of the nobility: ‘But the expression that Pushkin gave his feelings is so saturated with the artistic, and generally with the psychological, experience of centuries, is so crystallised, that it has lasted down to our time.’ [38]

In another example in the same work Trotsky suggested that there was a reality about such a thing as the fear of death which persisted even though different forms of it succeeded each other, and that poetry on this theme by Dante, Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, ‘and also by the Psalmist’, moves men deeply today. In such works, characters, situations, feelings and actions are pictured or suggested realistically, to the extent that the poet or dramatist works in such a way as to conceal nothing of the essential forces and pressures which men feel and act upon. Only from this can come the attainment of a particularity which is rich in the wealth of its interconnections, a true individuality rather than a striking singularity. To convey in sensuous form such individuality is the secret of the successful artistic image. The way, for example, that these particular men and women, formed by the artist so that their problems are not oversimplified and abstracted, confront the fear of death, is something which can be a vital source of energy for every future generation. To the common element in the experience (what is common, in this example, is not only the fact of the fear of death but also the unrelenting necessity of confronting and overcoming it whatever the particular historical situation) is added something else: the fact that poets have over the centuries accumulated a specialised lore and craftsmanship which has become more or less perfected in its ability to grasp and express these sensuous aspects of the relation between the general and the particular.

This ‘artistic ... experience of centuries ... crystallised’, is no less real than the ‘historically specific’, which some Marxists make the sole criterion of realism. What is more, it makes room for the central element of practice in human life and cognition; and in this way points to the fundamental flaw in that historical relativism which is so often mistaken for Marxism.

Following the thread suggested by Trotsky’s remarks about the clear light shed on innovation in, for example, law and art in times of revolution, we find a highly suggestive indication of the way in which Marxism may tackle the changing relations between form and content in art. Many others before and after Trotsky have shown the importance of avoiding an abstract separation and opposition between form and content, and demonstrated the way in which the artist works to bring out ‘the form of the content’ rather than manipulating the subject matter in order arbitrarily to fill a given preconceived form. What Trotsky is able to suggest (and it does not go beyond a suggestion) is the way in which such considerations of internal structure of the work will articulate with analysis of the changing social – historical reality which structures the world of thought and feeling of the writer and his audience:

“[Marxism] does not at all ‘incriminate’ a poet with the thoughts and feelings which he expresses, but raises questions of a much more profound significance, namely, to which order of feelings does a given artistic work correspond in all its peculiarities? What are the social conditions of these thoughts and feelings? What place do they occupy in the historical development of a society and of a class? And, further, what literary heritage has entered into the elaboration of the new form? Under the influence of what historic impulse have the new complexes of feelings and thoughts broken through the shell which divides them from the sphere of poetic consciousness?” [39]

Naturally the degree to which the results of historical changes in social consciousness can find expression without major changes in the forms of literature and art is a matter for empirical research in each case. No doubt we can expect that the approach and the immediate aftermath of revolutions will pose most urgently the problem of the obsolescence of artistic forms and the need for innovation, but again care is necessary. How often have revolutionary classes sought inspiration in past historical achievements, and found their way to this inspiration in an appeal to ancient forms against the modernism of the rulers? And in general terms, literary changes are not different from other changes in social consciousness in this aspect: ‘Artistic creation is always a complicated turning inside-out of old forms, under the influence of new stimuli which originate outside the art.’ [40] The old forms are developed and transformed, not created completely anew by the new stimuli. They represent not relics of dead civilisations but acquisitions of mankind in the struggle for life, for men’s mastery of their own fate. Again: ‘Literature, whose methods and processes have their roots far back in the most distant past and represent the accumulated experience of verbal craftsmanship, expresses the thoughts, feelings, points of view and hopes of the new epoch and of its new class.’ [41]

It is because literary forms have this character that ‘verbal form is not a passive reflection of a preconceived artistic idea, but an active element which influences the idea itself. However, when the Formalists wished to go beyond this, Trotsky waxed sarcastic:

“Reasoning ‘formally’ one may produce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in two ways: either by subordinating the selection of words to a preconceived artistic idea (as Pushkin himself did), or by solving the problem algebraically. From the ‘Formal’ point of view, the second method is more correct, because it does not depend upon mood, inspiration or other unsteady things, and has besides the advantage that while leading to ‘Eugene Onegin’ it may bring one to an incalculable number of other great works. All that one needs is infinity in time, called eternity ... But such an active mutual relationship – in which form influences and at times entirely transforms content – is known to us in all fields of social and even biologic life. This is no reason at all for rejecting Darwinism and Marxism and for the creation of a Formalist school either in biology or sociology.” [42]

Formalism, just as much as neglect of form, results in inability to see the actual dialectic of development of art:

“Each new literary school – if it is really a school and not an arbitrary grafting – is the result of a preceding development, of the craftsmanship of word and colour already in existence, and only pulls away from the shores of what has been attained in order to conquer the elements anew.” [43]

What is the relevance of all this to the question of realism, said by Lukacs and his followers to be the central category of a Marxist theory of literature? While giving due importance to literary form and technique, and explaining that these had a ‘content’ in and of themselves, Trotsky certainly did not think that mastery of form and technique would by itself guarantee the production of works which could be called realistic (in the broadest sense). Here all the social and psychological influences which form the consciousness of artist and audience come into play. Trotsky had occasion to take up the ideas of the ‘Lef group in Russia, a group which reacted violently against a realism which it thought too contemplative and acquiescent in the existing reality. Its members proposed an art and architecture which expressed an active, transforming attitude to nature and society. Trotsky saw this as a false distinction, and one which must lead to the throwing away of invaluable artistic and technical acquisitions. If the ‘Lef group wanted art to be ‘not a mirror, but a hammer’, then they should remember that to the man who wields a hammer, knowledge of how hard to strike, exactly where and when, depends on an accurate knowledge of the object and on practice in the arts of gaining such knowledge.

“Of course no one speaks about an exact mirror. No one even thinks of asking the new literature to have a mirrorlike impassivity. The deeper literature is, and the more it is imbued with the desire to shape life, the more significantly and dynamically it will be able to ‘picture’ life.” [44]

This, incidentally, is what Trotsky had in mind when he reminded the Formalists that, whatever the importance of the fact that the ‘laws of art’ have their own ‘peculiarity’, it must not be forgotten that what the art works on is natural and social reality. Eagleton [45] has commended Trotsky’s phrase, ‘Artistic creation is a deflection, a changing and a transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art’, [46] and suggests that it was an idea built upon by Macherey, [47] who argues that ‘the effect of literature is essentially to deform rather than to imitate’. [48] This is another example of the dangers of isolating quotations from their contexts and then fitting them into some imaginary continuity of ideas. Trotsky’s point, in this sentence, was that when art proceeds with its (relatively) independent work, it is reality that it ‘deflects’. And the essential point for Trotsky is that the artistic mode of ‘transforming’ reality, far from deforming it, as Eagleton and Macherey think, is one of the ways in which men come to grasp the unity of opposites constituted by nature and man’s practice of cognition in and of it.

In the most general sense Trotsky’s emphasis here makes a link between Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, with its emphasis on human practice as objective and at the same time source and criterion of knowledge, and the search of Benjamin and Brecht for a contemporary art which is able to go beyond passive reflection to active transformation of reality. This starting point of necessary practice in the cognition of an independently existing material reality works against any oversimplified and abstract ‘construction’ of reality according to some conclusion about the working class and its ‘revolutionariness’. Rather, the most dynamic and realistic art, that which is able truly to inform human feelings and human practice, is that which works its way through ‘that real, true revolution which is developing obstinately and moving from country to country, and which appears, therefore, to some pseudo-revolutionists as a boresome repetititon’. [49] From this single reality writers who come equally well equipped in terms of artistic training and mastery of technique may well produce very different results and degrees of success as realists. Besides their decision to be realistic, besides their technique, besides the breadth of their experience, there is the matter of the ‘standard’ of their realism. They may be restricted to a naturalistic portrayal of the brute facts of existence (like Pilnyak, for whom ‘the disorder of the Revolution’ was ‘a fundamental fact’). On the other hand, a historical standard can ‘help to take the work beyond ‘episodic and sometimes anecdotal subjects’:

“The invisible axis (the earth’s axis is also invisible) should be the Revolution itself, around which should turn the whole unsettled, chaotic and reconstructing life. But in order that the reader should feel this axis, the author himself must have felt it and at the same time must have thought it through.” [50]

1. See especially G. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1953), for the analysis of French eighteenth-century drama and the nineteenth-century aesthetic movement; and F. Mehring, Die Lessing Legendc (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1953) and On Historical Materialism (London: New Park Publications, 1975).

2. L. D. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, I960).

3. Raymond Williams, for example, writes that ‘Marxism, in many fields, and perhaps especially in cultural theory, has experienced at once a significant revival and a related openness and flexibility of theoretical development’ – Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977) p. 1.

4. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 14.

5. Ibid., p. 170.

6. Ibid., pp. 218-19.

7. Williams, Marxism and Literature, p. 202.

8. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, pp. 130-1.

9. Ibid., p. 132.

10. Ibid., p. 60.

11. Ibid., p. 61.

12. Ibid., p. 180-1.

13. L. D. Trotsky, Class and Art: Problems of Culture under the Dictatorship of the proletariat (Speech of 1924) (London: New Park Publications, 1974) p. 18.

14. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, pp. 178 – 9.

15. Ibid., p. 180.

16. Ibid., pp. 242-3.

17. Ibid., p. 244.

18. Ibid., p. 225.

19. Letter of 30 December, 1922, in V. I. Lenin, ‘The Question of Nationalities, or of “Autonomisation” ‘ (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.) pp.22-3.

20. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 225.

21. Ibid., p. 226.

22. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. V (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976) p. 49.

23. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 227.

24. L. D. Trotsky, Culture and Socialism and a Manifesto, Art and Revolution (London: New Park Publications, 1975).

25. Ibid., p. 30.

26. Ibid., p. 33.

27. Ibid., pp. 33-4.

28. Ibid., pp. 32-3.

29. Ibid., p. 33.

30. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 152.

31. K. Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. II (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1942).

32. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life.

33. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 146.

34. Trotsky, Class and Art, p. 7.

35. Ibid., p. 18.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid., p. 19.

38. Ibid., p. 9.

39. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 169.

40. Ibid., p. 179.

41. Ibid., p. 180.

42. Ibid., p. 173.

43. Ibid., p. 233.

44. Ibid., p. 137.

45. Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Methuen,

1976) pp. 50 – 1.

46. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 175.

47. P. Macherey, Pour une Theorie de la Production Litteraire (Paris: Maspero, 1970).

48. Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p. 51.

49. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 238.

50. Ibid., p. 79.