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Ian Birchall

Art & the Russian Revolution

Black Bread and Poetry

(April 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 94, April 1987, pp. 25–26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A SOCIAL revolution involves far more than just the seizure of political power. When working people who have been physically and spiritually oppressed take power into their own hands, they totally transform their view of the world, their way of life – their culture.

In the heady days of a post-revolutionary period, they may become naively, even absurdly over-optimistic about what can be achieved. But such optimism is an integral part of the revolutionary process.

It is in such a context that we have to understand the heated debates that took place in post-revolutionary Russia about the question of “proletarian culture”.

Seven decades on, it may seem an easy target for any hack armed with an aptly chosen quotation from Trotsky. But the real debate was something much more complex, part of the subtle unfolding of revolutionary consciousness.

The first conference of proletarian cultural-educational organisations was held in Petrograd in October 1917, one week before the Bolsheviks took power. It was attended by some two hundred delegates from Soviets, trade unions, factory committees and similar bodies; it was estimated that about three-quarters of the delegates were workers, most of them Bolsheviks or Bolshevik sympathisers.

The conference set up a permanent organisation, the Petrograd Proletcult. A Moscow Proletcult soon followed, and from 1917 until the early thirties, with various ups and downs and under various names, organisations existed which defended the concept of “proletarian culture”.

It is, however, hard to pin down exactly what the theory of “proletarian culture” was. The 1918 Proletcult convention passed a resolution (drafted by Bogdanov, a long-standing ultra-left, who had had several brushes with Lenin) stating:

“A class-art of its own is indispensible to the proletariat for the organisation of its forces for social work, struggle, and construction. Labour collectivism – this is the spirit of this art, which ought to reflect the world from the point of view of the labour collective, expressing the complex of its sentiments and its militant and creative will.”

A new art is not created by conference resolution, and many and varied interpretations could be put on such words. What lay behind them was more important – a feeling that a new age of human history was beginning and that a new culture had to be forged to embody its values. As the novelist Bessalko put it: “We do not need to fill the gap between the past and the present. Let us simply reject the past.” A speaker from the floor at the first national Proletcult conference in 1918 elaborated:

“We are entering the new life with a load of proletarian consciousness. They want to load us with another excessive burden – the achievements of bourgeois culture. In that case we will be like an overloaded camel, unable to go any further. Let us throw away bourgeois culture entirely as old rubbish.”

In the face of famine, civil war and the massive backwardness of Russian society, such aspirations were hopelessly over-ambitious.

As the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge, a sympathetic observer of the Proletcult, remarked:

“After all, what cultural work could be expected when every committed party member lived on 200 grams of black bread a day, plus three dried herrings a week?”

As Trotsky pointed out, even in 1924 the cultural needs of Russia were above all the struggle against illiteracy, lice and syphilis. And for such a period, he argued, bottle-making machines were more important than heroic poems.

Culture could not race ahead of the material conditions. As Valerian Pletnev – a joiner who worked nineteen years at the factory bench before becoming a Proletcult organiser – pointed out, the formation of workers’ theatre groups became possible only with the introduction of the eight-hour day.

Because of its over-ambitious programme, the Proletcult soon came into conflict with the Bolsheviks. Many Bolshevik leaders were suspicious of the Proletcult’s claim to be an autonomous mass organisation, fearing that it could become a focus for left-wing intellectuals hostile to Bolshevism.

The involvement of non-Party members such as Bogdanov, a leading figure in the Moscow Proletcult, compounded this anxiety.

Not only Trotsky but also Lenin was sharply critical of the Proletcult. In a speech in 1919 Lenin denounced the “intellectual fantasies” of proletarian culture, arguing for a much more down-to-earth approach:

“The task of proletarian discipline is to distribute bread and coal in such a way that there is a careful attitude to each unit of coal and each unit of bread ... The basic task of ‘proletarian culture’ is proletarian organisation.”

Yet the fact that Russian backwardness doomed the idea of “proletarian culture” to ultimate failure should not blind us to the facts of its very real achievements on the ground.

It is one of the tenets of class society that “culture” is the preserve of a small layer of talented people; the role of workers, at best, is to admire the achievements of others in a state of passive awe.

The Proletcult organisation set out to create writers’ circles, theatre groups and orchestras in which workers could begin to realise that culture was not beyond their grasp. In 1920 the Proletcult was operating 300 workshops with 84,000 members.

In 1925 Victor Serge reported that fifty workers in the Workers’ Springtime group had tackled “15 plays, 76 short stories, 261 poems and 20 lectures in 96 evening meetings attended by 450 writers.” Serge described a typical meeting of a Proletcult circle:

“The Vagranka group in the Rogoysko-Simonovsky suburb of Moscow is made up of sixteen workers who write for the press. Perkati-Pole, an old Bolshevik writer, a forgotten man, blind and dirt poor, gathers them in his comfortless lodgings and teaches them how to get rhythm into their verse and prose. There are not enough chairs; they crouch in a circle on the floor. They arrive smelling of tar, machine oil, and metallic dust.”

Pletnev describes how workers coming to the theatrical studios would stay till eleven at night, so that “the leaders have to switch off the lights to force the workers to stop.”

It would be foolish to claim that the Proletcult produced artistic work of lasting value. All too often it combined facile images with an over-heavy rhetoric. Thus the poet Gastev, of the “Smithy” group, wrote lines like:

“Look! Here I stand: among lathes,
hammers, furnaces and forges –
among hundreds of comrades.
There are iron-forged spaces above me.
Girders and angle-bars on the sides,
Rising seventy-five feet,
Bending right and left.”

An account of the Proletcult play The Mangy Dog describes how it portrays “fat men” engaged in the purchase of human beings for cannon fodder.

“The conclusion was a tableau. The electric light was turned off, there was a peal of thunder, and the blood-red soviet star rose above tall factory chimneys. In the light of lurid flames the ruins of the Stock Exchange were seen.”

In retrospect it is easy to patronise or sneer at such works; but in the context of the time their effect was doubtless much more powerful. And even where the products had no intrinsic value, the fact of their production was a symptom of a slow process of cultural transformation, one which would surely have borne fruit had it not been swallowed up in the bloodbath of Stalinist counter-revolution.

Trotsky’s critique of the Proletcult, developed in Literature and Revolution and numerous other polemics, was cogent and powerful. A culture, he argued, was a rich and complex historical creation; it could not be summoned up overnight.

In the relatively short time that the proletariat would rule (he hopefully foresaw) before disappearing into a classless society it would not have time to produce anything worthy of the name of a culture.

For whereas the bourgeoisie, as a relatively privileged minority, had been able to develop its culture with feudal society, the proletariat, deprived of all power and privilege, could do nothing of the sort.

Trotsky was particularly anxious that the proletariat should take over and make use of the cultural achievements of the bourgeoisie in the fields of science and technology, where they represented a real increase in humanity’s control of nature.

But he also believed that much should be taken from bourgeois art and literature too – from the work of Shakespeare, Pushkin, Goethe and Dostoevsky – the working class could learn much about the human personality and human feelings.

However, Trotsky did not dismiss the Proletcult as worthless; he argued that its organisations had a useful role to play if they abandoned the mirages of a “new literature” and confined themselves to trying to “elevate the literary level of the working class.”

But however sharp the polemics, it is important to remember that the Bolsheviks never made any attempt to suppress the Proletcult administratively. Trotsky and Lunacharsky (Commissar for Education) both publicly defended the Proletcult’s right to exist.

It was Stalin who, in 1932, finally dissolved the RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), the latterday descendant of the Proletcult. Any suggestion that workers could do things for themselves was unacceptable in this new epoch.

If the term “proletarian culture” was used after this time, it was purely as an abstract label to indicate political correctness; it had nothing whatever to do with workers’ self-activity.

Clearly the Proletcult failed to live up to its own ambitious claims; yet within the limits of the age its achievements were not negligible, and do not deserve the contempt of posterity. Perhaps the last word can be left to Victor Serge. While accepting the main points of Trotsky’s argument, he added the following proviso:

“Many generations of workers may very possibly never know other times. More than anything they will have to fight; they will have to destroy and suffer enormously to remake the world. But like the armies of antiquity, they will have their bards, their story-tellers, their musicians and their philosophers. In order to conquer the proletariat must be led by real thinkers and strategists who, like Marx and Lenin, have assimilated the essentials of modern culture.”

In short, the proletariat must have its own great intellectuals. It needs lesser ones as well, for the smaller but equally vital tasks. What is imperative is that both these groups serve it alone. Then the revolutionary work it accomplishes will have an intrinsic value.

In this historically limited sense, there will be, in fact there already is, a militant proletarian culture.

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