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Raymond Challinor

Literature and Revolution

(Summer 1958)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.1, Summer 1958, pp.76-78.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Literature and Revolution
by Leon Trotsky
Russell & Russell, New York, 25/-

Leon Trotsky’s book, which considers the relationship between politics and literature, makes an extremely useful contribution to this subject. Although it deals with the Russian literary scene in the immediate post-Revolution period. Trotsky’s main points have relevance – indeed, greater relevance – at the present time. The fact that he makes his points while, at the same time, rattling the bones of literary corpses, many of whose names have even sunk into the limbo of the forgotten, does not alter this one iota, and should not deter socialists from reading the book.

Trotsky starts by emphasizing the importance of material factors. The elementary problems of food, shelter and illiteracy must be solved before a new culture, firmly based upon the masses, can arise, “Culture feeds on the sap of economics,” he writes, “and a material surplus is necessary, so that culture may grow, develop and become subtle.” Under Tsarism, whore the conditions of the masses were so appalling, only the rich ruling class actually had a culture, Russian literature expressed the prejudices of noblemen and bureaucrats. After the October Revolution things did not miraculously change: the new regime inherited the poverty of the old. What is more, the new regime was primarily the work of those who worked with their hands; those who worked with their brains – the intellectuals – were, at best, passive spectators and, perhaps more often, supporters of the counter-revolution. Therefore, the traditional estrangement between manual and mental workers that exists under capitalism continued in an exacerbated form. It took tine for intellectuals to realise that the Soviet system would not topple at the first gust of counter-revolutionary wind. To their sheer amazement, a social order controlled by the workers and peasants had not only come into existence but, what was more astonishing, looked as if it was going to continue! More and more intellectuals decided that they would reconcile themselves with this, reality.

But in this reconciliation, as Trotsky realised, there were problems. For the overwhelming majority of post-revolutionary Russians were peasants. While under the leadership of the urban workers they had played an important part in the revolution, as more normal times returned, their minds tended to hanker after their age-old dream – each owning a sizeable plot of land. Trotsky consequently saw that they could not be relied upon to impart a socialist outlook to the intelligentsia, who were increasingly identifying themselves with the peasantry,

Trotsky concludes that all talk of creating a proletarian culture is nonsense. Not simply was the economic and intellectual basis lacking, but also he points out that cultural developments take considerable time. Capitalist culture, for instance, which began with the Renaissance, took centuries to grow and mature. Similarly a socialist culture will take more than a hectic fortnight’s activity to create. It will only arise after the political struggle for socialist mastery of the world has been fought and won. With the abolition of classes, a culture will emerge – not a proletarian culture – but a classless culture.

Trotsky does not bemoan the absence of a proletarian culture; he points to the sheer impossibility of it ever arising. Had Trotsky’s words been heeded,then much fruitless activity – attempts to create proletarian culture artificially – would have been avoided. Fewer unreadable books would have been written, and no writers would have had their talents crucified on the cross of “socialist realism”. This doctrine was particularly debilitating when applied, as it usually was, by the Stalinists, For, to them, it did not mean a set formula to be rigidly adhered to, but that “literary creations” had to conform to the ever-changing Communist Party line. These actions of the CP hierarchy transformed talented writers into mere hacks, well-trained parrots of the Politbureau.

On the other hand, Trotsky thought socialist writers should be allowed, complete freedom of expression in a socialist society. He argued that no attempt should be made to enforce political standards to quell discussion of artistic problems. Throughout history mind – as well as literary expression – has limped after reality. Therefore Trotsky looked to the future. For the socialist writers who would be able to weave their stories and plays around heroic incidents in the Russian Revolution.

Of course, Trotsky, writing in 1924, could not have foreseen that the October Revolution, the supreme event in Man’s liberation, would be changed under Kremlin dictatorship into its dialectical opposite. The growth of Russian state capitalism has meant an end for the time being to any attempts to build a socialist culture in Russia. However, when writers to come do cast off – as they surely will do – the mental straitjackets of Stalinism, they will find that this book is of great help to them in their task.

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Last updated: 12 February 2010