Bolshevism and the avant-garde artists (1993)—Part 3

By David Walsh
16 February 2010

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (September 25, 1992–January 3, 1993) in New York City, was a major artistic and political event. In response, the Bulletin newspaper, a predecessor of the World Socialist Web Site, published a seven-part article by arts editor David Walsh, devoted to the issues raised by the exhibition, in February-March 1993. The piece was later republished in the Fourth International magazine, Volume 20 Number 1, Winter-Spring 1994.

 

As the article indicates, the show was originally planned in 1988 when Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power in the USSR. By the time the massive exhibition went on display in New York and other cities, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the organizers made a concerted effort to use the occasion as a means of discrediting or marginalizing the Russian Revolution of 1917.

 

The 800 items on show, however, told a very different story, of the vibrancy of post-Revolutionary intellectual and artistic life, and the great impetus to creative activity provided by the first seizure of power by the working class in history. The show created considerable interest in the general public, attracting more than a quarter of a million visitors. We are posting the original series in three parts. Part 1 was posted February 13, and Part 2, February 15. This is third and final part.

Excesses of the avant-garde

A section of the Soviet avant-garde artists, particularly the most youthful, undoubtedly felt an urgent need to enter as directly as possible into the flow of the revolution and into the life of the revolutionary class, the proletariat.

It is not accidental that one of the impulses in the direction of Constructivism came from the work carried out by the Society of Young Artists, Obmokhu, which developed out of the First Free State Art Workshops in 1919-1920.

The second Obmokhu exhibit in May 1921 is generally considered to be Constructivism’s first public manifestation.

Obmokhu exhibitA view of the second Obmokhu exhibit in May 1921

But even prior to that, a great deal of consideration had been given to the role of art under the new revolutionary workers state. On November 24, 1918, for example, Izo Narkompros organized a conference in Petrograd on the subject of whether art was a “temple or factory.”

The list of speakers included People’s Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic Nikolai Punin, literary critic Osip Brik and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. According to Hubertus Gassner (“The Constructivists: Modernism on the Way to Modernization,” in the exhibition catalog), Punin, in the course of his speech, “distinguished between the activity of the bourgeois artist, who merely designed ornaments and decorations, and the activity of the worker, who treated ‘material’ to create ‘things”’ (Gassner, p. 305).

Punin “expected a ‘new era in art’ if the artists followed the lead of the workers and began to produce ‘things.’”

By 1919 Punin was criticizing painter Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, by implication, as merely decorative. The future of art belonged to artist Vladimir Tatlin’s “culture of materials.” The latter believed strongly in the life of the properties of materials: elasticity, weight and tension, etc. He advocated “the aesthetics of real materials in real space.”

Tatlin called his workshop at the State Free Art Workshops (where he started teaching in the spring of 1919) the Workshop of Material, Volume, and Construction. But it was not Tatlin who took Constructivism to its logical conclusion.

BrikA portrait of Osip Brik by Rodchenko

Others followed enthusiastically in Punin’s footsteps. It seemed obvious, the complex problems of art and the new society were solved! Brik, in the periodical Art of the Commune, defined artistic works as “things” and raised the slogan—“Not idealistic fog but the material things!”

Before considering the worst excesses of Constructivism and Production art, including attempts to organize artistic work along the lines of the industrial principles of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, it is necessary to make several observations.

First, the artistic reaction against prewar art, identified with sentimentality, overblown language and decoration, as well as against Expressionism, identified with petty-bourgeois psychologizing and breast-beating, was an international phenomenon. The October Revolution, however, had taken hold of the Russian avant-garde and added entirely new elements.

Second, in the intractable conditions that existed in the Soviet Union by 1921, artists, who came in general from middle class backgrounds, had compelling objective reasons to question their traditional role. They were determined to prove that they were neither ivory-tower dreamers nor cafe hangers-on. They worked under conditions in which the masses faced famine, pestilence and general economic ruin after seven years of imperialist and civil war, and the Bolsheviks and the most conscious workers were demonstrating heroic self-sacrifice. The artists themselves posed the question of “how today’s artists justify their existence.”

Third, a great many artists were inspired—and one must use the word “inspired”—by the Bolshevik emphasis on industrialization and modernization. Lenin’s famous “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country” became a watchword for an entire layer of artists. They stood, in Trotsky’s words, “for technique, for scientific organization, for the machine, for planfulness, for will power, for courage, for speed, for precision, and for the new man, who is armed with all these things” (Literature and Revolution [New York: Russell and Russell], p. 145).

They devoutly wished to play a part in overcoming Russia’s backwardness, with its “laziness ... dreaminess ... lachrymosity...” (ibid.).

These factors can explain, if not excuse, the (hopefully) facetious comments made by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, graduates of Obmokhu: “They [artists] are good for nothing. They should be treated in the same way as the Cheka treats counterrevolutionaries” (quoted by Gassner, p. 299).

Konstantin Medunetskii declared, “Art ends with us.” Boris Arvatov, one of the experimenters with Taylorism and a Production artist, decided that “the end of culture” had come because industrial techniques had supplanted cultural techniques. Inasmuch as artists were “useless to industry and unable to be engineers,” their position was declared “tragic” (ibid.).

The First Working Group of Constructivists was formed in March 1921. The group included Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, the Stenbergs, Medunetskii, Aleksei Gan and Karl Ioganson. They came together within the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) in Moscow around principles articulated by Rodchenko in January 1921: “All new approaches to art arise from technology and engineering and move toward organization and construction,” and “real construction is utilitarian necessity” (quoted by Christina Lodder, “The Transition to Constructivism,” an essay in the catalog, p. 267).

According to Lodder, in their draft program of April 1921, written by Gan, “the group proclaimed a new synthesis of art and industry. They wanted to relegate their purely artistic explorations to the role of ‘laboratory work,’ and to extend their experiments with manipulating three-dimensional abstract forms into the real environment by participating in the industrial manufacture of useful objects. They called the new type of activity that they envisaged ‘intellectual production,’ proclaiming that their ideological foundation was ‘scientific communism, built on the theory of historical materialism...’” (ibid.).

In the course of the same year, Stepanova declared in a lecture at Inkhuk: “Once purged of aesthetic, philosophical and religious excrescences, art leaves us its material foundations, which henceforth will be organized by intellectual production. The organizing principle is expedient Constructivism, in which technology and experimental thinking take the place of aesthetics” (quoted by Gassner, p. 299).

The conception of the artist as engineer and the insistence on the need to abolish “artistic instinct” in favor of “professionalism” were rejected by a number of artists in the avant-garde, including Wassily Kandinsky, Malevich, El Lissitzky and Tatlin himself, although his work had originally been held up as an example to follow.

Kandinsky, before his departure from the USSR, remarked in 1920: “Even though art workers right now may be working on problems of construction (art still has virtually no precise rules), they might try to find a positive solution too easily and too ardently from the engineer. And they might accept the engineer’s answer as the solution for art—quite erroneously. This is a very real danger” (quoted by Lodder, p. 271).

According to Gassner, “Neither Tatlin nor Unovis [including Malevich and Lissitzky] was generally opposed to the artistic use of technological tools and materials. But unlike the Constructivists at Inkhuk, they rejected the mechanization of creative methods and the reduction of the creative process to rational operations” (Gassner, p. 307).

Malevich referred to the Productivists and Constructivists as “lackeys of the factory and production.” He equated utilitarianism and Constructivism, which he disparaged as “subsistence art.”

Tatlin constructionA Corner Relief by Tatlin, 1915

Tatlin declared, “The influence of my art is expressed in the movement of the Constructivists, of which I am the founder” (quoted by Vasili Rakitin, “The Artisan and the Prophet: Marginal Notes on Two Artistic Careers,” exhibition catalog, p. 34). But he rejected the Moscow group and its leading figure, Rodchenko.

Rakitin writes: “The Constructivists affirmed the model of a life which could be—for them, the form of art determined new forms of life. Tatlin criticized the Constructivists—the ‘so-called Constructivists’—for their imitation, as it appeared to him, of contemporary style” (Rakitin, p. 34).

Rodchenko’s transformation into an ardent Constructivist is particularly instructive. In January 1919 he affirmed his belief in “abstract spiritual creativity.” In March of the same year he expressed his advocacy of Eastern over Western art during planning of the Museum of Painterly Culture. He declared: “Asiatic art is spiritual, was regarded with religious awe.... The West treats art lightly, in material terms; the East worships art, elevates it above everything else, does not make it utilitarian” (quoted by Gassner, p. 315).

As late as April 1919, in the catalog for an exhibit in which he exhibited his black-on-black paintings, Rodchenko assembled quotations from figures such as Young Hegelian anarchist/egoist Max Stirner (“That I destroy myself only shows that I exist”) and poet Walt Whitman (“What invigorates life invigorates death”). Lissitzky, in a review of the exhibit, approvingly called Rodchenko an “individualist” who had started “the shift to the new materiality” with his black paintings.

A mere two years later, however, in March 1921, Rodchenko found it possible to write: “Construction is a thing or a task that is approached with a precise working schedule and in which all materials and all their specific components are organized and used according to their correct functions without adding anything superfluous. The correct approach to each space is construction.” He added, disparagingly: “Composition is always an expression of individualism and everything individualism implies” (quoted by Gassner, p. 314).

The about-face undergone by Stepanova, Rodchenko’s companion, can be measured in months. As late as October 1920, she defended, according to Gassner, “the ‘miraculous’—in the sense of a transcendent quality—as an essential characteristic of art. At the same time, she strongly objected to the equation of mathematics and art: ‘The Formalist approach now being pursued in art is a tribute to the materialism of our time. But none of us will ever subordinate art to mathematics’” (quoted by Gassner, p. 315).

By December 1921 Stepanova had been won to the opposite view: “The intellect is our point of departure, taking the place of the ‘soul’ of idealism. From this it follows that, on the whole, Constructivism is also intellectual production (and not thought alone), incompatible with the spirituality of artistic activity” (quoted by Gassner, p. 315).

Gassner attributes this transformation to organizational measures taken by the Bolsheviks, which resulted in the avant-garde artists losing many of their administrative posts. He suggests that this obliged them “to rethink their role and place in society for the third time, after the first crisis following the February Revolution and the second following October 1917” (Gassner. pp. 315-16). He quotes Mayakovsky in the winter of 1920: “We declare to hell with individualism, to hell with words and emotions ... so that we can even renounce our own personality.... The poet can’t be forced but he can force himself’ (quoted by Gassner, p. 316).

To digress slightly, the supposed fall from grace of the avant-garde in 1921, with the advent of the New Economic Policy, is taken by Gassner and, to a certain extent, by Paul Wood and others, as the beginning of the end for progressive art in Russia. This, of course, would substantiate the argument that it was not Stalinism, but Lenin and Bolshevism that were the architects of bureaucratic repression of the arts. This is thoroughly false.

Two quite distinct issues are being confused: the loss of the state “art franchise” and bureaucratic terror.

In the early days of the revolution the avant-gardists had won many government positions essentially by default, because, to their credit, they were one of the few tendencies in the intelligentsia to come forward and cooperate with the new workers state.

But one would have to indulge in wishful thinking to imagine that the former anarchists, many in full possession of “supreme egos,” were, in all cases, either the most even-handed or tolerant administrators.

The Futurists, Suprematists, etc., represented one tendency, perhaps the most interesting, but nonetheless a minority tendency, which was exercising as much of a monopoly as it could over cultural and artistic life in the USSR.

In addition, they were not above silly provocations and pranks. Lunacharsky, according to Zenovia A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture: the Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), recounted with amusement a few years after the fact that in 1918 a couple of the Futurist “contributions” to the revolutionary celebrations had gone somewhat awry. One, which apparently placed Marx and Engels in a kind of swimming pool, had been nicknamed the “bearded bathers” by Moscow residents.

Gustav Klutsis, along with other young artists, chose to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution by painting branches of bushes in prominent places in Moscow, including along the Kremlin wall, bright blue, and wrapping trees in silvery gauze. Unfortunately, the paint could not be removed, and Lenin, for one, was not amused.

Lenin’s notorious anti-Futurist remarks and sentiments themselves have to be put in context. In May 1921 he wrote to Lunacharsky, “Aren’t you ashamed to vote for printing 5,000 copies of Mayakovsky’s ‘150,000,000’? It is nonsense, double-dyed stupidity and affectation.” The same day, he wrote to M.N. Pokrovsky, “Let’s agree that these futurists are to be published not more than twice a year and not more than 1,500 copies.... Could you find some reliable anti-futurists?” (Collected Works, Vol. 45 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970], pp. 138-39).

The bourgeois academics start twittering when they read these lines: “It’s all downhill from here! Straight to the labor camps! What a monster Lenin was!”

These delicate souls should bear several things in mind. First, Lenin did not impose his personal distaste for Futurism and his self-professed conservatism in artistic questions on anyone. Rather, he opposed Futurism’s “affectations” and rejected its claims to be THE poetry of the revolution.

Second, he was not proposing punitive measures. He was angered that, at a time when paper production was down to one-eighth of what it had been before the war and 75 percent of the printing presses were immobilized for repairs (Robert A. Maguire, Red Virgin Soil [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987]), so much time and space had been devoted to the work of one tendency.

Third, there is a real distinction between private utterances, (including ironic ones: e.g., Lunacharsky “should be flogged for his Futurism”), and Bolshevik policy.

Fourth, how many bourgeois regimes, not suffering from famine and civil war, publish the work of revolutionary avant-garde poets in either 5,000 or 1,500 copies?

In any event, when the Bolsheviks dropped their official state backing of the avant-garde in 1921, the former anti-statist artists became quite annoyed. In Trotsky’s words, the Bolsheviks insisted that the avant-garde should “learn to stand on its own two legs, without any attempt to have itself decreed official by the government,” and that the “new forms must find for themselves, and independently, an access into the consciousness of the advanced elements of the working class...” (Literature and Revolution, p. 160).

Adherence to world revolution

It was not the loss of official state backing, however, much less the threat of repression which inspired the self-inflicted “war” against individualism among Soviet avant-garde artists.

Objective events of a different character, which a philistine such as Gassner would scoff at, spoke very loudly to the artists and other sections of the intelligentsia: the worldwide revolutionary wave and the efforts to construct a new Communist international, as well as the terrible economic conditions in the USSR and the sacrifices referred to previously.

Undoubtedly there was a genuine recognition on the part of Mayakovsky, Rodchenko and others of the limitations of their previous anarcho-individualism. In addition, there was a simple recognition that the conditions of civil war were not conducive to the love lyrics that Mayakovsky, for one, had produced before 1914.

Mixed in with the well-intentioned renunciations was more than a small element of petty-bourgeois “over-compensation.” But there was something else involved, besides the response to great events and an understandable class and psychological reaction. Essentially, these artists had embraced Bolshevism without having assimilated its essence. Infantile “ultra-leftism” was by no means unique to them.

Stepanova’s reference to Formalism is not at all accidental. An appreciation of its outlook and its link to Futurism offers one of the keys to understanding the ideological basis of the violent transformations just referred to. A brief consideration of Formalism, ignoring for the moment its genuine contributions to literary criticism, is necessary.

Formalism held great sway over intellectual-artistic circles in Russia prior to and even after the October Revolution. The Russian Formalists, represented by Shklovsky, Jacobson, Kruchenikh and others, asserted the independence of the artistic element from the influence of social conditions. They reduced their task in literary criticism to “an analysis (essentially descriptive and semi-statistical) of the etymology and syntax of poems, to the counting of repetitive vowels and consonants, of syllables and epithets.... To [the Formalists] verbal art ends finally and fully with the word, and depictive art with color. A poem is a combination of sounds, a painting is a combination of color spots and the laws of art are the laws of verbal combinations and of combinations of color spots” (ibid., pp. 163-64).

Trotsky traced Formalism, and its insistence on the aesthetic “factor,” to its philosophical roots in Kantian idealism. He explained that the Formalists “do not look at the dynamics of development, but at a cross-section of it, on the day and the hour of their philosophic revelation. At the crossing of the line they reveal the complexity and multiplicity of the object (not of the process, because they do not think of processes). This complexity they analyze and classify. They give names to the elements, which are at once transformed into essences, into sub-absolutes...” (ibid., pp. 182—83).

TrotskyLeon Trotsky

As Trotsky explained, he addressed himself to Formalism in his book not only because it had significance in itself, but, above all, because of its philosophical hold over the Futurists and the avant-garde in general. “The paradox.” he wrote, “consists in the fact that Russian Formalism connected itself closely with Russian Futurism, and that while the latter was capitulating politically before Communism, Formalism opposed Marxism with all its might theoretically” (ibid., p. 162).

Trotsky saw the task as separating the former Futurists, now politically and practically convinced by the Bolshevik program, from their idealist aesthetics. This proved, in a certain sense, to be a more complicated task than convincing them of the necessity of socialist revolution.

The attempt to reconcile the new allegiance to the proletariat with the old aesthetics explains, at least in part, the Constructivists’ effort to rename themselves “intellectual workers.” The Formalist rejection of the social and the psychological in favor of pure technique now took on a new guise and paraded itself as Communist irreconcilability.

Formalist coldness metamorphosed into “Bolshevik” hardness, without, however, passing through a stage of materialist realism. This perhaps explains why Rodchenko’s statements, in particular, and his disdain for feeling and intuition often strike a false note.

A bourgeois scholar such as Christina Lodder becomes so confused by the issues and the claims of the artists themselves, that she can write (in “The Transition to Constructivism,” catalog, p. 270) that Rodchenko “came to regard the creative act less as an expression of personal inspiration and more as a quasi-scientific investigation into the inherent properties of painting, such as tone, color, line, texture, and organization. Far from being a Modernist assertion of the ‘autonomy’ of art, such a standpoint represented an attempt, akin to that of the Russian literary Formalists at precisely this time, to reconceive art as a specialized, quasi-scientific activity and the artist himself as a species of worker.” (Emphasis added.)

As Formalists, Rodchenko and his colleagues declared that the art object existed as a thing in itself, outside of society. As Constructivists, they declared that the work existed as a purely utilitarian object for society, outside of art.

Trotsky criticized the proponents of “art into life,” of “art which does not embellish life, but forms it,” on several grounds in Literature and Revolution. First of all, he pointed out their “utopian sectarianism.” He declared, “Even when they mark out correctly the general trend of development in the field of art or life, the theorists of ‘Lef [“Left Front of the Artists”] anticipate history and contrast their scheme or their prescription with that which is” (Literature and Revolution, p, 134).

More fundamentally, Trotsky objected to those who made an ultimatum out of the fusion of art with life. He wrote: “In other words, the poets, the painters, the sculptors, the actors must cease to reflect, to depict, to write poems, to paint pictures, to carve sculptures, to speak before the footlights, but they must carry their art directly into life. But how, and where, and through what gates?” (ibid., p. 136).

It surely did not require too much insight, he argued, to grasp that, as a result of Russia’s economic and cultural poverty, “more than one generation [would] have come and gone,” before it would be possible to form life entirely on the basis of art.

As we have seen, if Trotsky is responding to the more extreme Constructivists and Productivists, he is giving them more than the benefit of the doubt. They were not, in fact, calling for the fusion of art with life on the basis of the former, but for the liquidation of art into everyday life in its existing form and at its existing level.

Tatlin was quite right to point out the element in Constructivism which amounted to an acceptance of, or pandering to, the accomplished fact. Kandinsky and Malevich were equally correct to argue that Constructivism’s worship of the existing state of technology and engineering linked it with vulgar positivism and utilitarianism.

In any event, Trotsky powerfully defended art against its leftist detractors: “To reject art as a means of picturing and imagining knowledge because of one’s opposition to the contemplative and impressionistic bourgeois art of the last few decades, is to strike from the hands of the class which is building a new society its most important weapon” (ibid., p. 137).

He asked, what did it mean to deny experience and psychology? “In what way, on what grounds, and in the name of what, can art turn its back to the inner life of present-day man who is building a new external world, and thereby rebuilding himself? If art will not help this new man to educate himself, then what is it for? And how can it organize the inner life, if it does not penetrate it and reproduce it?” (ibid., p. 138).

Trotsky compellingly rejected, as well, the effort to reduce art to an intellectual formula: “A purely logical approach destroys the question of artistic form. One must judge this question not with one’s reason, which does not go beyond formal logic, but with one’s mind, which includes the irrational, in so far as it is alive and vital. Poetry is not a rational but an emotional thing...” (ibid., p. 143). (Emphasis added.)

What sort of artist, one might ask, throws art out the window as soon as new and historic demands are made on it? What had artists been struggling for if not this sort of opportunity and responsibility? If one dismissed art as useless to solve great problems, then why should it be bothered with at all? What then would art be “for?”

The extreme Constructivist position, in effect, denied that art produced objective knowledge and aided human beings in their cognition of reality just as science did, although, of course, by other means and with different results.

It reduced art to a plaything, a luxury item, an activity of parasites. One can see the connection between Kantianism and the artists’ guilty consciences. Rodchenko and his colleagues underestimated and lacked confidence in their own activity. They weren’t certain, in their heart of hearts, that they hadn’t been wasting their time.

“Proletarian culture”

The theory and practice of Proletarian Culture, its intersection with Futurism, and the usage made by the emerging Stalin bureaucracy of the avant-garde’s leftist errors and confusion must be addressed at this point.

The origin of the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organizations (Proletkul’t) is quite interesting, and far different from the superficial image one has of the movement. Proletkul’t was in fact an independent organization, founded in Moscow only weeks before the Bolshevik revolution. It was the brainchild of Aleksandr Bogdanov. [4]

The target of Lenin’s famous polemic, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Bogdanov was, in many regards, a remarkable individual—scientist, science fiction writer, theoretician—but he was philosophically an enemy of Marxism. An “ultra-left” in the years of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution, he attempted to reconcile the idealist theories of physicist Ernst Mach with Marxism.

Bogdanov rejected materialism, asserting that “the elements of physical experience” were identical to “psychic experience,” i.e., sensation. In other words, he rejected the notion that the material world was primary to thought, and ridiculed as vulgar, mechanical materialism the notion that the mind “reflected” the external world. On the basis of his neo-Kantian outlook he developed theories on culture and society, including the notion of the autonomy of the spheres of politics, economics and culture.

The essential theory of Proletkul’t ran as follows: “Any class needs culture, not merely as a reflection of its ideals and aspirations, but actually as the primary means of organizing its experience toward desired ends; the proletariat has no culture of its own, for economic and political struggles have consumed all its energies; bourgeois culture is clearly unsuited to the task of organizing the psychology of the proletariat; therefore, the proletariat must and can develop its own culture. It was assumed that given a few lessons in basic craftsmanship, anyone could become a proletarian artist” (Maguire, p. 157).

Bogdanov, as a component part of his theory, advanced the view that the working class had to undergo a cultural/psychic rebirth before it would be ready to enter into the realm of socialism. He laid great stress on the need to undo the submissive habits of the past and to transform attitudes, customs and especially authority relations.

It was not accidental that Bogdanov, who had not, like his former co-thinkers Lunacharsky and Pokrovsky, rejoined the Bolsheviks, opposed the October Revolution as “premature.” He wrote, some time after the revolution, “And if [Proletkul’t] were beyond one’s strength, the working class would have nothing to count on, except the transition from one enslavement to another, from under the yoke of capitalists to the yoke of engineers and the educated” (quoted by Sochor, pp. 185-86).

In the sphere of practical politics, his theories amounted to a kind of liberal wishful thinking, an abstract preaching of communist ethics and a substitution, as one critic put it, of “the actual, existing Russian worker” with a “fantasized model of a worker.”

Bogdanov actually developed a kind of replacement for the Ten Commandments, which he called “Laws of the New Conscience:” (1) There shall be no herd instinct. (2) There shall be no slavery, (3) There shall be no subjectivism of either a personal or group nature, etc.

Proletkul’t supported the Bolshevik regime and was granted semiofficial status as an organization for the cultural education of the working class, although Bogdanov had far greater ambitions for it. The organization from the outset shared with Futurism a fierce hostility for the culture of the past. Some argued, at its founding conference in Petrograd, “that all culture of the past might be called bourgeois, that within it—except for natural science and technical skills (and even there with qualifications) 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” (quoted by Sheila Fitzpatrick in The Commissariat of Enlightenment [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970], p. 92),

Proletkul’t prided itself on its pure proletarian bloodlines. It criticized Lunacharsky and the Bolsheviks for making use of bourgeois specialists. Bogdanov envisioned a Workers University and a Workers Encyclopedia, making the analogy between the Bolsheviks’ task and that of the French Encyclopedistes in the eighteenth century.

Wishing away the current extremely low level of economic life in Russia, or ignoring it in accordance with his theory of cultural autonomy, Bogdanov declared: “We are immediate socialists. We affirm that the proletariat must now, immediately, create for itself, socialist forms of thought, feeling and daily life, independent of the relations and combinations of political forces” (Sochor, p. 148). (Emphasis added.)

In the field of art education, Proletkul’t, as far as one can tell, carried out some useful work. It established studios which were open to workers and young people. In 1920 it claimed 400,000 members, of which some 80,000 were enrolled in studios.

But this was work of a preliminary kind, inevitably characterized by a low level of technical proficiency. Proletkul’t received the support of Nikolai Bukharin, who explicitly praised its theatrical efforts, for example, for their “crudeness” and “amateurism.” Lunacharsky retorted with the remark that as far as he knew there was “no primitive ABC of Communism,” a reference to Bukharin’s well-known work.

LeninV.I.Lenin working in his Moscow office

Lenin kept a watchful eye on Bogdanov’s activities and vigorously rejected his organization’s efforts to usurp the role of Lunacharsky’s education department, the trade unions and the party itself. On December 1, 1920, the party issued a letter, sharply opposing the claims of “futurists, decadents, supporters of idealist philosophy hostile to Marxism and ... mere idlers, renegades from the ranks of bourgeois publicists and philosophers” to determine the nature and direction of proletarian culture (Fitzpatrick, p. 186).

In opposition to the Proletkul’t conception, Lenin wrote, “We do not hold the Utopian view that the working masses are ready for a socialist society” (quoted by Sochor, p. 170). He chided Bogdanov and his co-thinkers for “dilating at too great length and too flippantly on ‘proletarian’ culture. For a start, we should be satisfied with real bourgeois culture; for a start we should be glad to dispense with the crude types of pre-bourgeois culture, i.e., bureaucratic culture or serf culture, etc.” (quoted by Sochor, p. 172). As a result of this political criticism, Bogdanov removed himself from Proletkul’t in 1920 and devoted the rest of his life to scientific work.

In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky categorically rejected the conception of a distinct “proletarian culture.” He explained the fundamental falsity of the analogy that the Proletkul’t theoreticians established between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution:

“The proletariat acquires power for the purpose of doing away forever with class culture and to make way for human culture. We frequently seem to forget this.... The development of bourgeois culture began several centuries before the bourgeoisie took into its own hands the power of the state by means of a series of revolutions” (Literature and Revolution [New York: Russell and Russell], p. 186).

The bourgeoisie was a cultured class before it took power. In the period of transition from capitalism to socialism on an international scale, “before the proletariat will have passed out of the stage of cultural apprenticeship, it will have ceased to be a proletariat” (ibid., p. 194).

The new human culture would be classless, Trotsky explained, and all attempts to create it prematurely by artificial, laboratory means, particularly in the conditions of backward, isolated Russia, were doomed to failure.

In passages that could have been aimed directly at Bogdanov’s idealist conceptions, Trotsky wrote, “The proletariat is forced to take power before it has appropriated the fundamental elements of bourgeois culture; it is forced to overthrow bourgeois society by revolutionary violence for the very reason that society does not allow it access to culture” (ibid., p. 195). (Emphasis added.)

And: “This is just the same as saying with the Utopian moralists: before building a new society, the proletariat must rise to the heights of Communist ethics.... But are we not traveling in a vicious circle? How is one to build a new society with the aid of the old science [or culture] and the old morals? Here we must bring in a little dialectics” (ibid., p. 198).

Speaking of the possibility of a “proletarian science,” for example, Trotsky explained that the working class finds within the old culture “certain points of departure, certain scientific methods which liberate the mind from the ideologic yoke of the bourgeoisie...” (ibid.).

The revolutionary class finds and makes use of certain objective advances within the old society, “taking them necessarily with the percentage of reactionary class-alloy which is contained in them. The practical result will justify itself generally and on the whole, because such a use when controlled by a Socialist goal will gradually manage and select the methods and conclusions of the theory. And by that time there will have grown up scientists who are educated under the new conditions” (ibid., p. 199).

This profound understanding of the relation of old culture to new was explicitly rejected by Bogdanov and not grasped by the avant-garde artists. This shared opposition to a materialist conception did not prevent the two tendencies from being, in general, bitter competitors in cultural circles.

David Shterenberg, the Futurist painter, addressed the Proletkul’t adherents in these words: “You shout about proletarian culture. You have taken a monopoly on yourselves. But what have you done for all this time, when you have had every chance to act?... Nothing. You are an empty place” (quoted by Fitzpatrick, p. 123).

Proletkul’t, for its part, declared: “Yes, Proletkul’t struggles both with futurism and imaginism, and sees the influence of the dying bourgeoisie with its perverted tastes even in the Communist futurists” (quoted by Fitzpatrick, p. 238).

In 1923, however, the Proletkul’t, by this time a declining movement, sought an alliance with Lef. There were certainly points of contact between the movements: “a progressive idea as the working model for art; the need to ‘organize’ the ‘psyche’ of the masses by means of art; focus on an ever-changing and future reality, instead of on static pictures of life; the idea that the artist is not a unique genius, but an expression of the collective will; a scorn for the art of the past—and most contemporary art as well—as ‘passive,’ ‘contemplative,’ and irrelevant to the tasks of the times” (Maguire, p. 155).

The old Proletkul’t organization lost favor and declined as a result of the struggle carried out by the Bolsheviks against its idealist and Utopian conceptions. In December 1922, however, the October group was formed, claiming to be the sole representative of proletarian culture. It published On Guard (Na postu).

The Octobrists, under the leadership of Averbakh, Vardin, Lelevich, Rodov and Volin, quickly became identified with the Stalin faction and carried out a vicious campaign throughout the 1920s against any artistic or intellectual currents which stood out against the bureaucracy and its interests.

In the mid-1920s the theory of proletarian culture became something quite different from the conception Bogdanov had originally advanced. It became an adaptation to the prevailing unfavorable conditions and a complement to the theory of socialism in one country.

In May 1925 Bukharin explicitly declared that Trotsky, in his rejection of the very idea of proletarian culture, had made a “theoretical mistake,” exaggerating the “rate of development of communist society, or expressed differently ... in the speed of the withering away of the proletarian dictatorship” (quoted by Sochor, p. 169).

A proletarian culture, Bukharin asserted, would be given the time to develop because the Soviet Union would be advancing toward socialism in isolation over an extended period of time. (Bogdanov had explicitly emphasized on several occasions that “socialism cannot be realized in any separate country.”)

There is no question that the Futurist-Constructivists, as well as the early Proletkul’tists, provided certain slogans, issues and ideological weapons that were seized upon by the Stalinists and utilized against artistic production itself. The diatribes against inspiration, intuition, “soulfulness,” “haziness,” etc., were used to regiment and straitjacket the artists of a later period.

The scornful dismissal of bourgeois culture as reactionary trash and the rejection of all formal considerations were turned against all artistic innovation and independent thought.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that the fundamental cause of the bureaucracy’s ascension to power lay in the unfavorable objective conjuncture: the defeat of the working class internationally and the isolation of the Soviet Union. The excesses of the petty-bourgeois bohemian-turned-communist might have remained just that, excesses, except for the counterrevolutionary conditions that prevailed by the late 1920s.

In criticizing the conceptions of the Futurist-Constructivists, it must also be kept in mind that they had consequences not only for politics, but also for art. It is no more correct to blame “Socialist Realism” on the Constructivists than to blame them for the Stalinist tyranny.

Still, one must note that the reduction of art to intellect and construction, to agitation and the immediately comprehensible opened the door for a return to precisely the Naturalism and Realism that the avant-garde so despised.

MeyerholdExperimental theater director
Vsevolod Meyerhold

In a profound letter, written to Meyerhold in April 1932, which Paul Wood quotes, Malevich made this extremely important point: “I am utterly convinced that if you keep to the way of Constructivism, where you are now firmly stuck, which raises not one artistic issue except for pure utilitarianism and in theater simple agitation, which may be one hundred percent consistent ideologically but is completely castrated as far as regards artistic problems, and forfeits half its value. If you go on as you are ... then Stanislavski will emerge as the winner in the theater and the old forms will survive” (quoted by Wood, in the exhibition catalog, p. 24).

Of course, something far worse than Stanislavsky’s old naturalism triumphed.

Hopefully, the cursory examination of Constructivism and its ideological underpinnings offered above provides another portion of the response to Wood’s attempt to mechanically equate the Trotskyist Left Opposition and the artistic avant-garde.

Stalinism cut off the political development of the most serious Russian artists and critics, as it did to layers of the intelligentsia attracted to the October Revolution throughout the world. The bureaucracy crushed out of existence the social atmosphere in which both a Marxist-scientific intelligentsia and a community of bold artistic experimenters could exist and fertilize one another’s work.

The resolute defense of art by one of the principal organizers of the October 1917 insurrection and the former commander of the Red Army against a section of the most advanced artists is an irony which neither Wood nor any of his confreres are capable of commenting upon.

But then, in general, the concern for artistic reflection, psychological acuity and emotional life would get Trotsky indicted not only by the Constructivists of the 1920s, but by every self-respecting representative of contemporary semiotics, deconstruction, Postmodernism, etc.

Wood, in his essay on the politics of the avant-garde, has the temerity to contemptuously refer to Trotsky’s outlook as “traditional humanism,” by which, presumably, he means any concern whatsoever for the “human.”

Such academics and petty-bourgeois theorizers are not interested in the development of art any more than they are in the development of the working class or socialism. Their concerns revolve around their reputations as the most daringly “left” of the “lefts” (so long as it doesn’t oblige the slightest practical intervention in the working class), or the most Postmodern of the Postmodernists, or the most critical of the critics of Postmodernism.

There are as well the more mundane matters of full professorships, government grants for research and book publishing careers.

In conclusion, there are two brief points to be made.

First, we stand today unquestionably on the eve of social upheavals which will once again impel sections of the intelligentsia toward socialism and the working class.

“Art,” Trotsky wrote, “cannot live and cannot develop without a flexible atmosphere of sympathy around it” (Literature and Revolution, p. 160). That atmosphere, one can say without a trace of exaggeration, exists nowhere on the planet today. Despite all the tragic difficulties of the epoch of the transition of capitalism to socialism, including catastrophic defeats and the resulting political confusion, it is inevitable that the most far-seeing intellectuals will place themselves in the camp of social revolution.

A critical evaluation of the Russian “experience” is not, therefore, an insignificant or academic matter. It is not possible, of course, to inoculate an entire social layer (particularly one which has barely begun to form) against a range of “infantile” and other kinds of disorders, but Marxists at least have the responsibility to equip themselves with some knowledge of past struggles over these complicated problems.

Second, despite the best efforts of the Guggenheim exhibit organizers and the international army of art critics to distort or render harmless the work on display in New York, its extraordinary brilliance and revolutionary energy, bound up with great events, shine through.

It reminds us of what human beings are capable of, inspired by great principles, thoughts and emotions, and what we ourselves are capable of.

One can imagine that the artists themselves were perhaps left a little dissatisfied and impatient with Trotsky’s description of their work as “a significant episode” in the forming of a new art. But he meant to pay the highest tribute. He referred to the time in the future when human beings would live in a classless society, without exploitation or any of the social miseries of present-day life.

He suggested that Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Liubov’ Popova and all those artists who had adhered to the cause of the working class and socialism, enduring the greatest sacrifices, would have contributed to that future life and its culture.

“When that time,” he wrote, “which is not immediate, will come, and the cultural and aesthetic education of the working masses will destroy the wide chasm between the creative intelligentsia and the people, art will have a different aspect from what it has today. In the evolution of that art, Futurism will prove to have been a necessary link. And is this so very little?” (ibid., p. 161).

Concluded

Footnotes:

[4] Bogdanov, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich (1873-1928)—Russian Social Democrat, philosopher, sociologist and economist. He attempted to create his own system of empirio-monism, a variant of idealism, attacked by Lenin. An ultra-left after the 1905 Revolution, Bogdanov left the Bolsheviks, establishing Proletkul’t weeks before the October Revolution of 1917. [back]

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