The debate on "proletarian culture"

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The previous articles in this series examined how the communist movement, during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the darkest years of the counter-revolution, struggled to understand what had become of the first proletarian dictatorship to establish itself on the scale of an entire country – the Soviet power in Russia. Future essays will look at the lessons revolutionaries have drawn from the demise of this dictatorship and have applied to any future proletarian regime. But before proceeding in that direction, we must return to the days when the Russian revolution was still alive, in order to study a key aspect of the communist transformation that was raised, though not of course resolved, during that decisive period. We refer to the question of ‘culture’.

We do not do this without a certain hesitation, because the issue is so vast, and the term culture so liable to abuse. This is above all true in this age of fragmentation that we call the decomposition of capitalism. In previous phases of capitalism, ‘culture’ was, it’s true, generally identified with ‘high culture’, with the artistic productions of the ruling class alone, a vision which ignored or dismissed all its more ‘marginalised’ expressions (consider, for example, the classical bourgeois contempt for the cultural expressions of conquered primitive societies). Today, by contrast, we are told that we live in a ‘multicultural’ world, where all cultural expressions are equally valid, and where virtually every partial aspect of social life itself becomes a ‘culture’ (the ‘culture of violence’, the ‘culture of greed’, the ‘culture of dependency’, etc, etc). Such simplifications make it impossible to arrive at any general, unified notions of culture as products of entire epochs of human history, or of human history as a whole. A particularly pernicious misuse of this attitude to culture today can be seen in the current imperialist conflict over Afghanistan: we are repeatedly asked to consider whether this is a conflict between cultures, between civilisations - more precisely between ‘western civilisation’ and ‘Muslim civilisation’. This is without doubt a question designed to hide the real issue: that there is only one civilisation on the planet today, the decadent civilisation of world capital.

In contrast to this, faithful to the monist approach of marxism, Trotsky defines culture as follows: “Let us recall first of all that culture meant originally a ploughed field, as distinct from virgin forest and virgin soil. Culture was contrasted with nature, that is, what was acquired by man’s efforts was contrasted with what was given by nature. This antithesis fundamentally retains its value today.

Culture is everything that has been created, built, learned, conquered by man in the course of his entire history, in distinction from what nature has given, including the natural history of man himself as a species of animal. The science that studies man as a product of animal evolution is called anthropology. But from the moment that man separated himself from the animal kingdom – and this happened approximately when he first grasped primitive tools of stone and wood and armed the organs of his body with them – from that time there began the creation and accumulation of culture, that is, all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature and subjugation of nature” (‘Culture and Socialism’, 1926). This is a very broad definition indeed - a defence of the materialist view that the emergence of man, and thus the evolution from nature to culture, is the product of something as basic and as universal as labour.

The problem remains, however, that under this definition, politics and economics in their widest sense are themselves expressions of human culture, and we could be in danger of losing sight of what we are talking about. However, in another essay, ‘Not by politics alone’ (1923), Trotsky points out that to understand the real relationship between politics and culture, it is necessary, alongside its broadest meaning, to provide a more ‘restricted’ definition of the political sphere, as “specifying a definite part of public activity, directly concerned with the struggle for power and opposed to economic work, to the struggle for culture, etc”; by implication, we can say the same about the term culture, which in this context we shall largely apply to domains such as art, education, and the ‘problems of everyday life’ (the title of the collection of essays containing the two articles cited above). Seen from this angle, the cultural aspects of the revolution may appear secondary, or at least dependent on the political and economic spheres. And this is indeed the case: as Trotsky shows in the text we are re-publishing below, it is folly to expect a real cultural renaissance until the bourgeoisie has been defeated politically and the material foundations of a socialist society have been built. All the same, and even if we further narrow down the problem of culture to the realm of ‘art’, the latter still raises the deepest questions about the nature of the society that the revolution aims to create. It is no accident, for example, that Trotsky’s most elaborated contribution to the marxist theory of art, Literature and Revolution, concludes with an extended vision of the nature of man in an advanced communist society. For if art is the expression par excellence of human creativity, then it provides us with an irreplaceable key to understanding what human beings will be like once the chains of class exploitation have been definitively broken.

In order to orient ourselves in this huge domain, we intend to stick closely to Trotsky’s writings on the matter, which are not so well known but which certainly provide the clearest framework to date for approaching the problem.1 And rather than restating what has already been said by Trotsky himself, we will republish extended extracts from two chapters of Literature and Revolution. The second of these will concentrate on his inspiring portrait of the future society. But in this Review we are publishing an extract from the chapter ‘What is proletarian culture and is it possible’, which is a particularly important component of Trotsky’s contribution to the debate on culture within the Bolshevik party and the revolutionary movement in Russia. In order to situate this contribution, it is necessary to describe the historical background to it.

The debate on ‘proletarian culture’ in revolutionary Russia

The fact that the debate on culture was by no means a secondary one can be illustrated by the fact that it prompted Lenin to draft the following resolution, to be presented by the Communist fraction at the Proletkult congress of 1920:

1. All educational work in the Soviet Republic of workers and peasants, in the field of political education and in the field of art in particular, should be imbued with the spirit of the class struggle being waged by the proletariat for the successful achievement of its dictatorship, ie, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the abolition of classes, and the elimination of all forms of exploitation of man by man.

2. Hence, the proletariat, both through its vanguard – the Communist Party – and through the many types of proletarian organisations in general, should display the utmost activity and play the leading part in all the work of public education.

3. All the experience of modern history and, particularly, the more than half-century old revolutionary struggle of the proletariat in all countries since the appearance of the Communist Manifesto has unquestionably demonstrated that the marxist world outlook is the only true expression of the interests, the viewpoint, and the culture of the revolutionary proletariat.

4. Marxism has won its historic significance as the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat because, far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch, it has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture. Only further work on this basis and in this direction, inspired by the practical experience of the proletarian dictatorship as the final stage in the struggle against every form of exploitation, can be recognised as the development of a genuine proletarian culture.

5. Adhering unswervingly to this stand of principle, the All-Russia Proletkult Congress rejects in the most resolute manner, as theoretically unsound and practically harmful, all attempts to invent one’s own particular brand of culture, to remain isolated in self-contained organisations, to draw a line dividing the field of work of the People’s Commissiariat of Education and the Proletkult, or to set up a Proletkult ‘autonomy’ within establishments under the People’s Commissariat of Education and so forth. On the contrary, the Congress enjoins all Proletkult organisations to fully consider themselves in duty bound to act as auxillary bodies of the network of establishments under the People’s Commissariat of Education, and to accomplish their tasks under the general guidance of the Soviet authorities (specifically, of the People’s Commissariat of Education) and of the Russian Communist Party, as part of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship (Lenin, ‘On proletarian culture’, October 8, 1920, Collected Works, vol 31, p 316-317).

The Proletarian Culture movement, Proletkult for short, had been formed in 1917 with the idea of providing a political orientation for the cultural dimension of the revolution. It is most often associated with Aleksander Bogdanov, who had been a member of the Bolshevik fraction in its earliest years, but who had come into conflict with Lenin over a number of issues, not only the formation of the Ultimatist group after 1905,2 but, more famously, over Bogdanov’s championing of the ideas of Mach and Avenarius in the realm of philosophy, and more generally, his efforts to ‘complete’ marxism with various theoretical systems, such as his notion of ‘tectology’. We cannot go into Bogdanov’s thinking in any detail here; from what little we know of it (only certain works have been translated from Russian), he was, despite his flaws, capable of developing some important insights - in particular, on the question of state capitalism in the epoch of capitalist decline. For this very reason, his ideas still require a much more developed critique, and from a clearly proletarian standpoint.3 In any case, Proletkult was by no means limited to Bogdanov: Bukharin and Lunacharsky, to name but two leading Bolsheviks, were also involved with the organisation and did not always share Lenin’s views on it. Bukharin, for example, who was due to present the resolution at the Proletkult Congress, objected to certain elements in Lenin’s draft resolution, which was presented in a somewhat modified form.

Proletkult flowered during the heroic phase of the revolution, where the unchaining of revolutionary energies also gave rise to a huge surge of expression and experimentation on the artistic front, much of it explicitly identifying itself with the revolution. This phenomenon, moreover, was not limited to Russia, as witness the development of movements such as dada and expressionism in the wake of the revolution in Germany, or, slightly later on, of surrealism in France and elsewhere. During the years 1917-20, Proletkult’s membership soared to around half a million, with over 30 journals and around 300 groups. For Proletkult, the struggle on the cultural front was of equal importance to the struggle on the political and economic front. It saw itself leading the cultural struggle, while the party led the political struggle and the trade unions the economic. It provided numerous studios for workers to come together and engage in experiments in painting, music, drama, poetry and other areas of art, while at the same time encouraging new forms of communal living, of education, and so on. It should be emphasised that the explosion of social and cultural experimentation in Russia during this period was far wider than Proletkult itself, and came under many names; but the importance of discussing Proletkult in particular, then and now, is that it attempted to situate these phenomena within an interpretation of marxism. The guiding idea behind it, as its name implies, was that the proletariat, if it was to emancipate itself from the yoke of bourgeois ideology, had to develop its own culture, which would be based on a radical break with the hierarchical culture of the old ruling classes. Proletarian culture would be egalitarian and collective where bourgeois culture had been elitist and individualist: thus, for example, experiments were made with conductorless orchestras or collective poems and paintings. Along with the futurist movement, with which Proletkult had a close but sometimes critical relationship, there was a strong tendency to exalt everything that was modern, urban, and machine-based, in contrast to the rural mediaevalism which had dominated Russian culture hitherto.

The debate on culture became a burning issue in the party once the civil war had been won. It was at this point that Lenin began to emphasise the importance of the cultural struggle: “We have to admit that there has been a very radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism. The radical modification is this: formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organisational, ‘cultural’ work. I should say that the emphasis is shifting to educational work, were it not for our international relations, were it not for the fact that we have to fight for our position on a world scale. If we leave that aside, however, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education” ‘On cooperation’, 1922, in Collected Works Vol 33, p 474).

But for Lenin, this cultural struggle had a very different meaning than it had for Proletkult, since it was connected to the shift from the civil war period to the reconstruction period of the NEP. For Lenin, the problem facing the Soviet power in Russia was not the construction of a new proletarian culture: this seemed to him perfectly utopian given the international isolation of the Russian state and the awful cultural backwardness of Russian society (illiteracy, predominance of religion and ‘Asiatic’ customs, etc). For Lenin, the Russian masses had to walk before they could run, which meant that they had yet to take the step of assimilating the essential achievements of bourgeois culture, let alone constructing a new proletarian one. This approach was parallel to his demand that the Soviet regime had to learn how to trade: in other words, it had to learn from the capitalists in order to survive in a capitalist environment. At the same time, Lenin was increasingly concerned that the growth of bureaucracy was a direct result of Russian cultural backwardness: the struggle for cultural advance was thus seen as part of the struggle against the rising bureaucracy. This was because only an educated and cultured proletariat could hope to take the management of the state into its own hands; at the same time, the new stratum of bureaucrats was largely seen as an outgrowth of Russia’s peasant conservatism and lack of modern culture.

The resolution submitted to the Proletkult congress, although written before the adoption of the NEP, seems to anticipate these concerns. Its strongest point is where it insists that marxism did not reject the cultural achievements of the past, but had in fact assimilated all that was best in them. This was a very clear repudiation of Proletkult’s ‘iconoclasm’, its tendency to reject all previous cultural developments. Although Bogdanov himself had a much more sophisticated approach to this issue, there is no doubt that the immediatist and workerist attitude was very influential in Proletkult. At its first conference, for example, the view was expressed that “all culture of the past might be called bourgeois, that within it – except for natural science and technical skills…there was nothing worthy of life, and that the proletariat would begin the work of destroying the old culture and creating the new immediately after the revolution” (cited on p 71 of Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution by Richard Stites, OUP 1989 – a very detailed survey of the numerous cultural experiments in the early years of the revolution). In Tambov in 1919, “local Proletkultists planned to burn all the books in the libraries in the belief that the shelves would be filled on the first of the new year with nothing but proletarian works” (ibid).

Against this vision of the past, Trotsky insisted in Literature and Revolution that “we marxists have always lived in tradition and we have not because of this ceased to be revolutionaries….” . The exaltation of the proletariat as it is at any given moment has never been the marxist attitude, which sees the proletariat in its historic dimension, embracing the remotest past, the present, and the future, when the proletariat will have dissolved into the human community. By an irony of language Proletkult often became a ‘cult of the proletariat’, which is radical only in appearance and can be easily recuperated by opportunism, which thrives on a restricted and immediate vision of the class. This same workerism was expressed by Proletkult’s tendency to assume that proletarian culture could only be the product of industrial workers. But as Trotsky argued in Literature and Revolution, the best artists were not necessarily workers; the social dialectic which produces the most radical works of art is more complex than the reductionist view that it has to come from individual members of the revolutionary class. The same, we might add, is true of the relationship between the social and political revolution of the proletariat and new artistic breakthroughs: there is an underlying connection, but it is neither mechanical nor national. For example: while Proletkult was trying to create a new ‘proletarian’ music in Russia, one of the most striking developments in contemporary music took place in capitalist America, with the eruption of jazz.

Lenin’s resolution also expresses his antagonism to Proletkult’s tendency to organise itself in an autonomous manner, almost as a parallel party, with congresses, a central committee, and so on. And indeed this mode of organisation does seem to be based on a real confusion between the political and the cultural sphere, a tendency to conflate the two, and, in Bogdanov’s case, even a temptation to see the cultural sphere as the most crucial.

On a more critical note, however, we should bear in mind that this was the period when Lenin was becoming hostile to any form of dissent in the party. As we noted in previous articles in this series, in 1921 ‘fractions’ were banned and left wing groups or currents within the party came under open attack, culminating in the physical repression of left communist groups in 1923. And one of the reasons for Lenin’s antagonism towards Proletkult was that it tended to be a rallying point for certain dissenting elements within or around the party. Proletkult’s emphasis on egalitarianism and the spontaneous creativity of the industrial workers intersected with the views of the Workers’ Opposition; and in 1921 a group calling itself the Collectivists circulated a text at the Proletkult congress, claiming adherence to the Workers’ Opposition and Proletkult; it also defended Bogdanov’s views on philosophy and his analysis of state capitalism, which was used to criticise the NEP. A year later, the Workers’ Truth group put forward very similar views; Bogdanov was briefly imprisoned for involvement with the latter group, although he denied supporting it in any way. (Following this episode, Bogdanov withdrew from active involvement in politics and concentrated on scientific work). Thus Lenin’s insistence that Proletkult more or less dissolve itself into the state’s ‘cultural’ institution, the People’s Commissariat for Education, has to be seen in this light.

In our view, the direct subordination of artistic movements to the transitional state is not the correct answer to confusion between the artistic and the political spheres; indeed, it tends to compound it. According to Zenovia Sochor in Revolution and Culture, Trotsky was opposed to Lenin’s efforts to liquidate Proletkult into the state, even though he agreed with many of Lenin’s criticisms of Proletkult (see p154). In Literature and Revolution, he puts forward a clearer basis for determining the communist policy towards art: “The marxist 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 marxist methods are not the same as the artistic. The party leads the proletariat but not the entire process 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 orients 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” (chapter 7, ‘Communist policy towards art’). In 1938, in response to the Nazi and Stalinist project of reducing art to a mere adjunct of state propaganda, Trotsky was even more explicit: “If, for the better development of material production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralised control, to develop intellectual creation an anarchist regime of individual liberty should from the first be established. No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above!” (Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, New York, 1970, p 119)

Trotsky also went deeper than Lenin on the general problem of proletarian culture; while Lenin’s resolution leaves space for this concept, Trotsky rejected it altogether; and he did this on the basis of a searching reflection on the nature of the proletariat as the first revolutionary class in history to be a class without property, an exploited class. This understanding, a key to grasping virtually every aspect of the proletarian class struggle, is elaborated very clearly in the extract from Literature and Revolution published below. There is also a very succinct summary of his thesis on proletarian culture in the short introduction to the book: “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 consists in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human”.

Literature and Revolution was written in the period 1923-24 – in other words, the very period in which the struggle of the left against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy was beginning in earnest. Trotsky wrote the book on his summer holiday. In some ways, it provided a relief from the stresses and strains of the day-to-day ‘political’ combat within the party. But at another level, it was part of the struggle against Stalinism. Although the original Proletkult had gone into a sharp decline following the party controversy of 1920-1, the middle 20s saw parts of it reincarnated in the false radicalism which is one of the faces of Stalinism. Thus, in 1925, one of its offshoots, the group of Proletarian Writers, provides an explicit ‘cultural’ apology for the bureaucracy’s campaign against Trotskyism: “Trotsky denies the possibility of a class proletarian culture and art on the grounds that we are moving towards a classless society. But on that very basis, Menshevism denies the necessity of a class dictatorship, of a class state, and so on…The views of Trotsky and Voronsky cited above are ‘Trotskyism applied to questions of ideology and art’. Here the ‘left’ phraseology about classless art is interwoven with, and serves to disguise, opportunistic limitations of the cultural tasks of the proletariat”. Later in the same text, it is claimed that “This significant success of proletarian literature has been possible only on the basis of the rapid political and economic growth of the working masses of the Soviet Union” (‘Resolution of the First All-Union Conference of Proletarian Writers’, published in Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, part 2, edited by William G Rosenberg, University of Michigan, 1990). But this “political and economic growth” was now to be carried out under the banner of ‘socialism in one country’. Stalin’s monstrous ideological revision, which merged the proletarian dictatorship with socialism in order to undermine both, thus allowed certain strands of Proletkult to claim that a new proletarian culture was actually being built on the foundations of a socialist economy.

Bukharin also rejected Trotsky’s critique of proletarian culture on the grounds that he failed to understand that the transition period to the communist society could be an extremely long-drawn out process. Owing to the phenomenon of uneven development, the period of proletarian dictatorship might well last long enough for a distinctive proletarian culture to emerge. This too was the theoretical basis for abandoning the perspective of world revolution in favour of building ‘socialism’ in isolated Russia.4

The bloody and oppressive record of the Stalinist states at the economic and political level is proof enough that what was being built in these countries had nothing whatever to do with socialism. But the utter cultural vacuity of these regimes, their suppression of all real artistic creativity in favour of the most nauseating kind of totalitarian kitsch, provides further confirmation that they were never an expression of an advance towards a truly human culture, but a particularly brutal product of this senile and moribund capitalist system. The way the Stalinist apparatus in Russia from the 1930s onwards did away with all ‘avant-garde’ experimentation in art and education, together with the so-called ‘cultural revolution’ in China in the 1960s, are perhaps the most compelling examples of this. The sorry history of the Stalinist/Maoist leviathans offers no lessons whatever about the cultural issues confronting the working class in the future revolution.


1One of the results of the counter-revolution is that the left communist tradition, which preserved and developed marxism during this period, had little time or opportunity to investigate the general area of art and culture; and what contributions have been made (for example by Ruhle, Bordiga, and others) themselves need to be unearthed and synthesised.

2The ‘Ultimatists’ were, along with the ‘Otzovists’, a tendency within Bolshevism which disagreed with the parliamentary tactics of the party following the defeat of the 1905 uprising. The dispute with Lenin over Bogdanov’s philosophical innovations became very heated when it was combined with these more directly political divergences and resulted in Bogdanov’s expulsion from the Bolshevik group in 1909. Bogdanov’s group remained within the broader Russian social democratic party and published the journal Vpered (Forward) for the next few years. Again, a critical history of these early ‘left’ trends within Bolshevism remains to be written.

3See Revolution and Culture, The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, by Zenovia Sochor, Cornell University, 1988, for an informative account of the main differences between Lenin and Bogdanov; the author’s starting point, however, is academic rather than revolutionary. On the question of state capitalism, Bogdanov was critical of Lenin’s tendency to see it as a kind of antechamber to socialism, and seemed to recognise it as an expression of capitalist decay (cf Chapter 4 of the above).

4Cf Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929, OUP, 1959, chapter III. Deutscher’s chapter on Trotsky’s writings on culture is as brilliant as the rest of the biography and we have used it extensively for this article. But it also reveals the tragic fate of Trotskyism. Deutscher agrees 99% with Trotsky’s view of ‘proletarian culture’, but makes a highly significant concession to Bukharin’s idea that an isolated ‘transitional regime’ could last for decades or longer. According to Deutscher, and to post-war Trotskyism, the Stalinist regimes which were established outside the USSR, as well as the USSR itself, were all ‘workers’ states’ caught in some twilight world between one proletarian revolution and the next – and thus “Trotsky undoubtedly underrated the duration of the proletarian dictatorship and, what goes with it, the extent to which that dictatorship was to acquire a bureaucratic character”(p 199). In reality, this was no more than a critical defence of Stalinist state capitalism.