Trotsky and the culture of communism
The previous article in this series focussed on the debate on ‘proletarian culture’ in the early years of the Russian revolution. Our article also served as an introduction to an extract from Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution, which in our view presents the clearest framework for approaching this debate and outlining the policies of a proletarian political power towards the sphere of art and culture.
The following extracts, which are accompanied by our own comments, are taken from the final chapter of the same book, where Trotsky outlines his vision of art and culture in the developed communist society of the future. Having rejected the notion of ‘proletarian culture’ in previous chapters, Trotsky permits himself a glimpse of the truly human culture of classless society; it is a glimpse which takes us far beyond the particular question of art to the prospect of a transfigured humanity.
Ours is by no means the first attempt to present this final chapter and draw out its significance. In his monumental biography of Trotsky, Deutscher quotes large segments of it and concludes: “His vision of the classless society had, of course, been implicit in all marxist thought influenced as it was by French Utopian socialism. But no marxist writer before or after Trotsky has viewed the great prospect with so realistic an eye and so flaming an imagination” (p 197, ‘Not by politics alone’, The Prophet Unarmed, OUP edition).
More recently, Richard Stites, in his far ranging survey of the social-experimental currents that accompanied the early days of the Russian revolution, again draws a connection between Trotsky’s vision and the utopian tradition. Summing up the chapter in a single dense paragraph, Stites refers to it as “The mini-utopia or capsule project of a world under communism” which, he says, Trotsky describes “in a tone of controlled lyricism”. For Stites, this was “an extraordinary endorsement of the experimental utopianism that characterised the 1920s”; Revolutionary Dreams, Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, OUP, 1989, p 168). But here we must take care: as Stites explains in his introduction, the author of this work tends to counter-pose the utopian trend to the marxist one, so that in a sense he is endorsing Trotsky’s approach in so far as it is utopian rather than marxist. For more conventional bourgeois thought, however, marxism is utopianism – but only in the most negative sense, signifying that its vision of the future is nothing but pie in the sky. But for now, we are going to let Trotsky speak, and we can consider whether or not his work deserves to be described as utopian at the conclusion of this article.
Art in the revolution, and art in communist society
The chapter begins by reiterating the essential argument of the chapter on proletarian culture: that the aim of the proletarian revolution is not to create a brand new ‘proletarian culture’ but to synthesise the best of all past cultural achievements into a genuinely human culture. Trotsky’s distinction between revolutionary art and socialist art reflects this precision:
“Revolutionary art, which inevitably reflects all the contradictions of a revolutionary social system, should not be confused with socialist art for which no basis has as yet been made. On the other hand, one must not forget that socialist art will grow out of the art of this transition period.
In insisting on such a distinction, we are not at all guided by a pedantic consideration of an abstract programme. Not for nothing did Engels speak of the socialist revolution as a leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. The revolution itself is not as yet the kingdom of freedom. On the contrary, it is developing the features of ‘necessity’ to the greatest degree. Socialism will abolish class antagonisms, as well as classes, but the revolution carries the class struggle to its highest tension. During the period of revolution, only that literature which promotes the consolidation of the workers in their struggle against the exploiters is necessary and progressive. Revolutionary literature cannot but be imbued with a spirit of social hatred, which is a creative historic factor in an epoch of proletarian dictatorship. Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming—so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians—such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbour, sympathy, will be the mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry”.
Along with Rosa Luxemburg we may question Trotsky’s affirmation of “social hatred”, even in the period of the proletarian dictatorship. This notion is connected to the concept of the Red Terror, which Trotsky also defended, but which the Spartakusbund explicitly rejected in its programme (1).
But there is no doubt at all that “solidarity will be the basis of society” in the socialist future. This leads Trotsky to consider the argument that such an “excess of solidarity” would be inimical to artistic creation:
"However, does not an excess of solidarity, as the Nietzscheans fear, threaten to degenerate man into a sentimental, passive, herd animal? Not at all. The powerful force of competition, which in bourgeois society has the character of market competition, will not disappear in a socialist society, but, to use the language of psychoanalysis, will be sublimated, that is, will assume a higher and more fertile form. There will be the struggle for one's opinion, for one's project, for one's taste. In the measure in which political struggles will be eliminated—and in a society where there will be no classes, there will be no such struggles—the liberated passions will be channeled into technique, into construction, which also includes art. Art then will become more general, will mature, will become tempered, and will become the most perfect method of the progressive building of life in every field. It will not be merely ‘pretty’ without relation to anything else. All forms of life, such as the cultivation of land, the planning of human habitations, the building of theatres, the methods of socially educating children, the solution of scientific problems, the creation of new styles, will vitally engross all and everybody. People will divide into ‘parties’ over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports. Such parties will not be poisoned by the greed of class or caste. All will be equally interested in the success of the whole. The struggle will have a purely ideological character. It will have no running after profits, it will have nothing mean, no betrayals, no bribery, none of the things that form the soul of ‘competition’ in a society divided into classes. But this will in no way hinder the struggle from being absorbing, dramatic and passionate. And as all problems in a socialist society—the problems of life which formerly were solved spontaneously and automatically, and the problems of art which were in the custody of special priestly castes— will become the property of all people; one can say with certainty that collective interests and passions and individual competition will have the widest scope and the most unlimited opportunity. Art, therefore, will not suffer the lack of any such explosions of collective, nervous energy, and of such collective psychic impulses which make for the creation of new artistic tendencies and for changes in style. It will be the æsthetic schools around which ‘parties’ will collect, that is, associations of temperaments, of tastes and of moods. In a struggle so disinterested and tense, which will take place in a culture whose foundations are steadily rising, the human personality, with its invaluable basic trait of continual discontent, will grow and become polished at all its points. In truth, we have no reason to fear that there will be a decline of individuality or an impoverishment of art in a socialist society”.
Trotsky then goes on to consider what style or school of art would be most appropriate to a revolutionary period. To some extent these considerations have a more local and temporary significance, in that they refer to schools of art which have long since disappeared, such as symbolism and futurism. In addition, as capitalism has sunk further and further into decadence, as commercialism, egotism and atomisation have plumbed new depths, artistic movements and schools as such have more or less disappeared. Indeed, by the 1930s,Trotsky’s manifesto of the projected International Federation of Revolutionary Artists and Writers, written in conjunction with Andre Breton and Diego Rivera, had already anticipated this tendency: “the artistic schools of the last decades, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, have superceded each other without any of them coming to fruition…It is impossible to find a way out of this impasse by artistic means alone. This is a crisis of the entire civilization…If contemporary society does not succeed in reconstructing itself, art will inevitably perish as Greek art perished under the ruins of slave civilization”. Of course it is very probable that a future revolutionary social upheaval will give a new impetus to more collective movements of artists who identify with the revolution, and who will no doubt draw inspiration from the schools of the past without slavishly imitating them. Let us just say that while Trotsky opted for the term “realism” to define the art of the revolutionary period, he did not therefore reject the positive contributions of particular schools even when –as in the case of symbolism for example – their concerns had been far removed from the social issues of the day and even tended towards a flight from reality (2):
“The new artist will need all the methods and processes evolved in the past, as well as a few supplementary ones, in order to grasp the new life. And this is not going to be artistic eclecticism, because the unity of art is created by an active world‑attitude and active life‑attitude”.
This is consistent with Trotsky’s more general view on culture which we examined in the last article, and which was opposed to the pseudo-leftism which wanted to jettison everything inherited from the past.
Trotsky applied the same method to the problem of fundamental literary forms such as tragedy and comedy. Against those who saw no place for tragedy or comedy in the art of the future, Trotsky provides us with a method for examining the manner in which particular cultural productions are connected to the more general historical evolution of social formations. Ancient Greek tragedy had expressed the impersonal domination of the gods over man, which in turn reflected man’s relative helplessness before nature in the archaic modes of production; Shakespearean tragedy, on the other hand, which was deeply connected to the birth pangs of bourgeois society, represented a step forward because it focussed on more individual human emotions:
“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”.
Trotsky then shows that the conditions which give rise to tragedy are not limited to the past, but will continue to exist far into the future, because man (as Marx put it) is by definition a suffering being, confronted with the perpetual conflict between his limitless strivings and the objective universe that confronts him:
“However the conflict between what is personal and what is beyond the personal, can take place, not only in the sphere of religion, but in the sphere of a human passion that is larger than the individual. The super‑personal element is, above all, the social element. So long as man will not have mastered his social organization, the latter will hang over him as his fate. Whether at the same time society casts a religious shadow or not, is a secondary matter and depends upon the degree of man's helplessness. Babeuf's struggle for communism, in a society which was not yet ready for it, was a struggle of a classic hero with his fate. Babeuf's destiny had all the characteristics of true tragedy, just as the fate of the Gracchi had whose name Babeuf used. Tragedy based on detached personal passions is too flat for our days. Why? Because we live in a period of social passions. The tragedy of our period lies in the conflict between the individual and the collectivity, or in the conflict between two hostile collectivities in the same individual.
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 mediæval 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.
Tragedy is a high expression of literature because it implies the heroic tenacity of strivings, of limitless aims, of conflicts and sufferings…. One cannot tell whether revolutionary art will succeed in producing ‘high’ revolutionary tragedy. But socialist art will revive tragedy. Without God, of course. The new art will be atheist. It will also revive comedy, because the new man of the future will want to laugh. It will give new life to the novel. It will grant all rights to lyrics, because the new man will love in a better and stronger way than did the old people, and he will think about the problems of birth and death.
The new art will revive all the old forms which arose in the course of the development of the creative spirit. The disintegration and decline of these forms are not absolute, that is, they do not mean that these forms are absolutely incompatible with the spirit of the new age. All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re‑think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to re‑feel its feelings”.
What is striking about the approach Trotsky adopts in this section is how closely it conforms to the way that Marx poses very similar question in the Grundrisse – the draft for Capital, which was not published until 1939, and which in all probability Trotsky himself had never read. Like Trotsky, Marx is concerned with the dialectic between changes in forms of artistic expression, connected to the material evolution of the productive forces, and the underlying human content of these forms. The passage is so thought-provoking that it is well worth quoting in full:
“In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognised that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society. The difficulty consists only in the general formulation of these contradictions. As soon as they have been specified, they are already clarified.
Let us take e.g. the relation of Greek art and then of Shakespeare to the present time. It is well known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but also its foundation. Is the view of nature and social relations on which Greek imagination and hence Greek mythology is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightening rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier? All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them. What becomes of Fama alongside Printing House Square? Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material. Not any mythology whatever, i.e. not an arbitrarily chosen unconsciously artistic reworking of nature (here meaning everything objective, hence including society). Egyptian mythology could never have been the foundation or the womb of Greek art. But in any case, a mythology. Hence, in no way a social development which excludes all mythological, all mythologizing relations to nature; which therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.
From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?
But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and an unattainable model.
A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naivete, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art is not for us in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society in which it grew. It is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return” (Introduction, p 111, Penguin edition).
In both these passages, there is a clearly shared starting point: to understand any particular artistic form, it must be located in its general historical context, and thus in the context of the evolution of man’s productive forces. It is this which enables us to understand the profound alterations which art has undergone in different historical epochs. But just as Trotsky also understands that the tragic dimension will never be entirely absent from art because it will never be entirely absent from the human condition, so Marx observes that the real theoretical challenge lies less in recognising that artistic forms are bound up with the forms of social development than in understanding why the creative achievement’s of man’s “childhood” can still resonate across the ages to present and future humanity. In other words, without reverting back to the “dumb genus” of Feuerbach, or the idealised mankind of bourgeois moralists, how can the study of art help us to discover the truly fundamental characteristics of human life activity, and thus of the human species as such?
The unification of art and industry
Trotsky now turns to the practical relationship between art, industry and construction in the revolutionary period. He focuses in particular on the field of architecture, the meeting point between art and construction. Of course, at this level poverty-stricken Russia was still mainly limited to repairing ruined buildings and pavements. But despite its extremely modest resources, revolutionary Russia had sought to develop a new synthesis of art and practical building; this was especially the case with the constructivist school around Tatlin, who is perhaps best remembered for designing the monument to the Third International. But Trotsky appeared dissatisfied with these experiments and stressed that no real reconstruction could take place until the fundamental economic problems had been resolved (and this could not of course be accomplished in Russia alone). He thus appears to commit himself more to examining the possibilities for the generalised fusion of art and construction in the communist future, once the fundamental political, military and economic problems of the revolution had been resolved. For Trotsky, this was a project that would not involve a minority of specialists, but would be a collective effort:
“There is no doubt that, in the future—and the farther we go, the more true it will be—such monumental tasks as the planning of city gardens, of model houses, of railroads, and of ports, will interest vitally not only engineering architects, participators in competitions, but the large popular masses as well. The imperceptible, ant‑like piling up of quarters and streets, brick by brick, from generation to generation, will give way to titanic constructions of city‑villages, with map and compass in hand. Around this compass will be formed true peoples' parties, the parties of the future for special technology and construction, which will agitate passionately, hold meetings and vote. In this struggle, architecture will again be filled with the spirit of mass feelings and moods, only on a much higher plane, and mankind will educate itself plastically, it will become accustomed to look at the world as submissive clay for sculpting the most perfect forms of life. The wall between art and industry will come down. The great style of the future will be formative, not ornamental. Here the Futurists are right. But it would be wrong to look at this as a liquidating of art, as a voluntary giving way to technique…
Does this mean that industry will absorb art, or that art will lift industry up to itself on Olympus? This question can be answered either way, depending on whether the problem is approached from the side of industry, or from the side of art. But in the object attained, there is no difference between either answer. Both answers signify a gigantic expansion of the scope and artistic quality of industry, and we understand here, under industry, the entire field without excepting the industrial activity of man; mechanical and electrified agriculture will also become part of industry”.
Here Trotsky offers us a concretisation of the original vision of Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: man, when freed from alienated labour, will build a world “ in accordance with the laws of beauty”(4)
The landscapes of the future
Trotsky now begins to move towards the crescendo of his vision, permitting himself a very graphic depiction of the cities and landscapes of the future:
“The wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the Sense of Jean Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more ‘artificial’. The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils' practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re‑registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.
The jealous, scowling Kliuev declares, in his quarrel with Mayakovsky, that ‘it does not behove a maker of songs to bother about cranes’, and that it is ‘only in the furnace of the heart, and in no other furnace, that the purple gold of life is melted.’ Ivanov‑Razumnik, a populist, who was once a left Social‑Revolutionist‑—and this tells the whole story—also took a hand in this quarrel. Ivanov-Razumnik declares that the poetry of the hammer and the machine, in whose name Mayakovsky speaks, is a transient episode, but that the poetry of ‘God‑made Earth’ is ‘the eternal poetry of the world’. Earth and the machine are here contrasted as the eternal and temporary sources of poetry, and of course the eminent idealist, the tasteless and cautious semi‑mystic Razumnik, prefers the eternal to the transient. But, in truth, this dualism of earth and machine is false; one can contrast a backward peasant field with a flour mill, either on a plantation, or in a socialist society. The poetry of the earth is not eternal, but changeable, and man began to sing articulate songs only after he had placed between himself and the earth implements and instruments which were the first simple machines. There would have been no Koltzov without a scythe, a plough or a sickle. Does that mean that the earth with a scythe has the advantage of eternity over the earth with an electric plough? The new man, who is only now beginning to plan and to realize himself, will not contrast a barn‑floor for grouse and a dragnet for sturgeons with a crane and a steam‑hammer, as does Kliuev and Razumnik after him. Through the machine, man in socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won't even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. The machine is the instrument of modern man in every field of life. The present‑day city is transient. But it will not be dissolved back again into the old village. On the contrary, the village will rise in fundamentals to the plane of the city. Here lies the principal task. The city is transient, but it points to the future, and indicates the road. The present village is entirely of the past”.
In this passage there is a prescient rebuttal of the modern day primitivists who blame ‘technology’ for all the ills of social life and seek to return to an Arcadian dream of simplicity before the snake of technology entered the garden: as we have shown elsewhere (see for example our article on ecology in IR 64), this actually means a regression to a pre-human past and thus the elimination of mankind. Trotsky has no doubt that it is the city that points the way forward. But not in its present form: since he recognises that the present-day city is a transient phenomenon, we can be sure that he is fully in line with Marx and Engel’s notion of a new synthesis between town and country. And this notion has nothing in common with the devastating urbanisation of the globe which capitalism is currently inflicting on humanity; thus Trotsky envisages the deliberate preservation of the wilderness as part of an overall plan for the management of planet. Today the degradation of environment, not least the threat posed by the destruction of the great forests, has emphasised more than in Trotsky’s day how vitally necessary such a preservation will be. Today we face the very real danger that there will be no tigers and no forests for man to protect; and the proletarian power of the future will undoubtedly have to take rapid and draconian measures to bring this ecological holocaust to an end. But there is still no question that the communist regeneration of nature will be carried out on the basis of all the most important and sustainable advances in science and technology.
The liberation of daily life
Trotsky now turns to the organisation of daily life in communism:
“The personal dreams of a few enthusiasts today for making life more dramatic and for educating man himself rhythmically, find a proper and real place in this outlook. Having rationalized his economic system, that is, having saturated it with consciousness and planfulness, man will not leave a trace of the present stagnant and worm‑eaten domestic life. The care for food and education, which lies like a millstone on the present‑day family, will be removed, and will become the subject of social initiative and of an endless collective creativeness. Woman will at last free herself from her semi‑servile condition. Side by side with technique, education, in the broad sense of the psycho‑physical moulding of new generations, will take its place as the crown of social thinking. Powerful ‘parties’ will form themselves around pedagogic systems. Experiments in social education and an emulation of different methods will take place to a degree which has not been dreamed of before. Communist life will not be formed blindly, like coral islands, but will be built consciously, will be tested by thought, will be directed and corrected. Life will cease to be elemental, and for this reason stagnant. Man, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build peoples' palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous”.
The awakening of the unconscious
And in the closing passage of the book, Trotsky’s vision reaches its climactic point, as he turns from the mountain-tops to the depths of the human psyche:
"More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo Sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho‑physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub‑soil. Is it not self‑evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man's extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.
Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.
It is difficult to predict the extent of self‑government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho‑physical self‑education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts — literature, drama, painting, music and architecture - will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self‑education of communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise”.
In our view, examining the implications of this final passage requires, at the very least, an article to itself. In particular: since it revolves around the notion of exploring (and indeed awakening) the unconscious levels of mind, it raises the problem of the relationship between marxism and psychoanalysis, which Trotsky himself addressed in other writings. But to conclude the present article, we must return to the question posed at its beginning: can Trotsky’s portrait of life in the communist future be defined as a form of utopianism, and thus outside the realm of real material possibility?
Here we can only refer to Bordiga’s remark that what distinguishes marxism from utopianism is not the fact that the latter enjoys describing the society of the future while the former does not, but that, unlike the utopians, marxism, by identifying, and identifying with, the proletariat as an implicitly communist class, has uncovered the real movement that can lead to the overthrow of capitalism and the installation of communism. Having thus overcome all abstract schemas based on mere ideals and wishes, marxism is thus well within its rights to examine the entirely of human history to develop its understanding of the real capacities of the species. When Trotsky talks about the average individual under communism reaching the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx, this judgment is based on the recognition that these exceptional individuals were themselves the product of wider social forces, and can therefore be used as milestones that point the way to the future, indications of what human beings could be like once the very material shackles of class privilege and economic scarcity have been left behind.
Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution in 1924, in the days when the coils of the Stalinist counter-revolution were tightening around him. His vision is thus all the more moving as a testimony to his deep confidence in the communist perspective of the working class. In these days of capitalist decomposition, when the very notion of communism is more than ever being derided not only as a utopia but also as a dangerous delusion, Trotsky’s portrait of mankind’s possible future remains a defiant source of inspiration for a new generation of revolutionary militants.
1. “The proletarian revolution requires no terror for the realisation of its aims: it looks upon manslaughter with hatred and aversion. It has no need for such means because the struggle it conducts is not against individuals but against institutions”. Needless to say that the Spartacists’ rejection of terror did not mean that they were opposed to revolutionary class violence, which is not the same thing.
2. When he used the term realism, Trotsky was talking about something wider than a particular school of art which had enjoyed its hey-day during 19th century. He meant “a realistic monism, in the sense of a philosophy of life, and not a "realism" in the sense of the traditional arsenal of literary schools”. It would also have been interesting to know Trotsky’s views following his later confrontation with the surrealist movement, with whom he shared some important points of agreement. We will return to this in the next article.
3. Neither, we can add in retrospect, does Trotsky’s definition of realism have anything in common with the one-dimensional banality of “Socialist Realism” as elaborated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Contrary to all the best traditions of Bolshevism which had presided over a considerable flowering of artistic endeavour in the early years of the revolution, Socialist Realism demanded that art should be no more than a vehicle of political propaganda, and reactionary propaganda at that, since it used as a glamorisation of the Stalinist terror and the construction of a barracks regime of state capitalism. It was certainly no accident that in form and content Socialist Realism is virtually indistinguishable from Nazi kitsch. As Trotsky and Breton put it in the manifesto of the International Federation: ”The style of official Soviet painting is being described as ‘socialist realism’ – the label could have been invented only by a bureaucrat at the head of an Arts Department…One cannot without revulsion and horror read the poems and novels or view the pictures and sculptures, in which officials armed with pen, brush and chisel, and surveyed by officials, armed with revolvers, glorify the ‘great leaders of genius’ in whom there is not a spark either of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalin epoch will remain the most striking expression of the deepest decline of proletarian revolution”.
4. See the article in this series dealing with the 1844 Manuscripts and the vision of communism contained in them, in International Review n°70 and 71.