Lecture seven: Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over “proletarian culture”

Part 2

By David Walsh
1 October 2005


The following is the second part of the lecture “Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over ‘proletarian culture’.” It was delivered by David Walsh, the arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It appears in four parts.

This is the seventh lecture given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. The fourth, “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” was posted in six parts from September 14 to September 20. These lectures were authored by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North. The fifth, “World War I: The breakdown of capitalism,” was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board. It was posted in five parts, from September 21 to September 26. The sixth “Socialism in one country or permanent revolution” was delivered by Bill Van Auken and posted in three parts, from September 27 to September 29.

In defense of the classics

One approach to considering our present dilemma might proceed along the following lines. In his 1925 essay, “On Art,” Aleksandr Voronsky, the great Soviet critic and editor, and Left Oppositionist, illustrated his notions about artistic intuition with a reference to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, published in 1878. Tolstoy had died only 15 years before the date of Voronsky’s writing, Chekhov had died 21 years prior to Voronsky’s essay, Dostoyevsky, 44 years; the Moscow Art Theatre, with Stanislavski at its helm, still operated; Voronsky was to collaborate with Maxim Gorky, one of the last major figures from pre-revolutionary Russian literature.

The entire history of Russian literature, with the principal exceptions of Pushkin and Lermontov, had unfolded in the 80 years preceding the October Revolution. Gogol, whose Dead Souls was published in 1842, was followed by Turgenev, Goncharov, Ostrovsky, Nekrasov, Leskov, Uspensky... Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. And, of course, the great critics and enlighteners—Belinsky, Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov.

What is our situation? It might be claimed that American literature reached its highest point to date 80 years ago. Arguably the greatest work of fiction produced in this country, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, appeared precisely eight decades ago, in 1925; another of the most remarkable works, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was published the same year; Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises the following year. In Dreiser’s work one finds perhaps the most acute and all-sided alignment of the individual and national tragedy.

The past 80 years hardly constitute a wasteland—Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Richard Wright, whose Native Son, unthinkable without Dreiser, is at least half a great novel, and many others. An obvious flourishing of certain new or renovated forms took place—commercial cinema, jazz, dance and musical theater. But, I would argue, an overall decline in American cultural life began in the late 1930s.

On the one hand, increasing disillusionment with the Soviet Union, which, however, did not lead, for the most part, to the disappointed drawing the most profound or enduring conclusions; and, on the other, the devil’s bargain entered into with Stalinism by the liberal intelligentsia had a profoundly disorienting effect.

Left intellectuals, anticipating an extension following the war of the New Deal, a Popular Front US-style, were utterly unprepared for the change of course initiated by the American ruling class in 1948 with the onset of the Cold War. They were either purged by McCarthyism, deeply damaging cultural life until our own day, or they made a new Faustian bargain—with the most violently reactionary elements in American society becoming converts to the new, national religion of anticommunism.

And this “religion,” even in its most liberal, social reformist incarnation, proved far too weak and ultimately dishonest and self-contradictory a foundation for penetrating artistic examinations of postwar American society. The film, novel and drama associated with the liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s have not, by and large, proven enduring.

I think it is legitimate to point to increasingly diminished returns in the last several decades. In the more recent period: John Updike and Philip Roth, both capable of brilliant passages and remarkable individual insights, but, in the end, minor writers, with limited outlooks. We know the unhappy situation in cinema, with a few exceptions. I do not believe that either drama, poetry, visual art, music or dance has experienced a golden age in recent decades.

The state of cultural life and the general attitude exhibited by contemporary society toward its greatest artistic treasures are not small matters to us. We work under the conditions produced by the decline of capitalism; of course, we understand that the degradation of culture is, in the final analysis, a symptom of this system’s decay, but it also creates difficulties for us.

We feel intensely protective, more protective than anyone, toward the “classics” in art and literature. We encourage their study, we polemicize for their study. Marxism, as Lenin insisted, has assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the thousands of years of human culture.

We rely for the success of the socialist project on a far higher level of knowledge and thinking, within far wider sections of the population, than currently holds sway. What is socialist consciousness? The most penetrating and critical appraisal of reality, grounded in social understanding—all aspects of reality, the lessons of history, the laws of social life, science too—but also insight into psychology, the extraordinary flexibility and adaptability of the human personality, as well as the heavy weight of the past “on the brain of the living,” our capacities for nobility, cowardice, self-sacrifice, bravery, self-delusion.

Who would be foolish enough to embark on an undertaking like ours, which demands so much of consciousness (and also the unconscious), unaccompanied by Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart, Dostoyevsky, Van Gogh, Dreiser, Chaplin and countless others? Is some of this work demanding? Yes, and a good thing too. Trotsky once noted, “That which can be grasped without any difficulties is generally useless, regardless of the subject.” [14]

We are unashamed “classicists.” Does that imply a hostility to modernity or experimentation and innovation in art? Absolutely not. It simply means that nothing extraordinary is possible, including meaningful innovation, except on the basis of the working through and mastery of what is best in historic culture. This has its political correlative: it will always be found that the greatest creativity in politics, such as the development of the World Socialist Web Site, is predicated on the firmest political principle.

In any event, a little historical perspective is needed. Have we been inundated in recent decades with important Realist (or any other kind of important) novels, with epic works of theater, with an excessive reverence for classical form in any field—or have we, on the contrary, suffered in many artistic spheres from the flourishing of a rather cold and empty technical virtuosity, quite cut off from large human concerns?

Again, we make no bones about encouraging the reading of Hawthorne, Dickinson, Poe, Melville, Twain, Howells, Wharton, James, Mencken, London, Norris, Dreiser, Fitzgerald and the rest.

How would the presence of a Twain or a Mencken alone alter the present climate in America, where merely watching a film or an evening’s worth of television is often a painful, if not degrading experience? The poverty of much of official American culture is almost inconceivable: drab, banal, unimaginative, mind-numbing, devoted to money-grubbing, when not actually practicing deceit on a gigantic scale. A culture designed to make people stupid and unfeeling and uncurious. We can see the results in some of the letters we receive. “Abu Ghraib—who cares?” Or even the emails from certain sympathizers, like the one who boasted that he liked to leave his brain at the cinema door.

And politics in the United States—what a field day for the satirist! In both parties, a surplus of pious hypocrites and well-heeled sociopaths, the thought of whose conduct behind closed doors makes one shudder! American political life generates more than its share of unintentionally comical moments: for example, a Tom DeLay, Republican House leader, former pesticide salesman, corporate shill, reactionary ignoramus, lecturing the American people on the “culture of life” during the Schiavo case.

The nineteenth century Russian critic Pisarev once lamented, speaking of Russian society, how “poor and stupid” we are! And Trotsky explained that only after the working class took power in 1917 did it understand how poor and backward “we still are.” [15]

We have no reason either to conceal our difficulties. Our poverty and backwardness lie in a technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency. That is not our fault, or the population’s. Decaying capitalism, which has no progressive solutions to any problem, is responsible. And the working class, as it begins to mature politically, will tackle this problem too. But we must say what is.

So we encourage the “classics,” along with genuine originality and experimentation, against cynical postmodernism and its apologetics for what exists, as well as various forms of pseudo-populist “left” art, and, in general, all concessions to artistic amateurism and backwardness.

But this is not a new theme in the history of our movement.

The political and cultural education of the working class was inevitably a critical concern of the socialist movement from its first days. Before the principles of scientific socialism had even been laid down, Engels wrote of England in 1845 that “the epoch-making products of modern philosophical, political, and poetical literature are read by working-men almost exclusively.... In this respect the Socialists, especially, have done wonders for the education of the proletariat.... Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions, cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.” [16]

The German Social Democratic Party, the first mass socialist party of the working class, laid great stress on the cultural uplift of the population. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to account for its activities in any detail, but certain facts should be noted. First and foremost, the SPD leadership, or that element that concerned itself with cultural problems, did everything in its power to urge the study and appreciation of the classics of world and German literature.

Historian Vernon Lidtke notes somewhat disapprovingly, for example, that the People’s Free Theater movement “must be viewed as an archetypical example of those socialist-dominated organizations, that were designed to transmit to workers what Social Democratic leaders considered to be the best of established European and German culture.” [17]

Lidtke writes that “Social Democratic cultural commentators looked on their own socialist literature as artistically inferior, and accepted it primarily and often exclusively because of the message it carried.” [18] Tens of thousands attended musical and literary evenings, organized by the party, listening to the music of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner and Handel and the works of Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Tolstoy, Ibsen and others.

The attitudes of Franz Mehring and Rosa Luxemburg were unequivocal. Along with Plekhanov, Mehring was a pioneer in the application of historical materialism to cultural and literary problems.

Luxemburg summed up her feelings for Mehring’s contribution and her own approach to the problem in a letter on her colleague’s seventieth birthday in 1916.

Addressing Mehring, she wrote: “For decades now you have occupied a special post in our movement, and no one else could have filled it. You are the representative of real culture in all its brilliance. If the German proletariat is the historic heir of classic German philosophy, as Marx and Engels declared, then you are the executor of that testament. You have saved everything of value which still remained of the once splendid culture of the bourgeoisie and brought it to us, into the camp of the socially disinherited. Thanks to your books and articles the German proletariat has been brought into close touch not only with classic German philosophy, but also with classic German literature, not only with Kant and Hegel, but with Lessing, Schiller and Goethe. Every line from your brilliant pen has taught our workers that socialism is not a bread and butter problem, but a cultural movement, a great and proud world-ideology. When the spirit of socialism once again enters the ranks of the German proletariat [the letter was written during World War I, following the colossal betrayal of the SPD leadership] the latter’s first act will be to reach for your books, to enjoy the fruits of your life’s work.... Today, when intellectuals of bourgeois origin are betraying us in droves to return to the fleshpots of the ruling classes, we can laugh contemptuously and let them go: we have won the best and last the bourgeoisie still possessed of spirit, talent and character—Franz Mehring.” [19]

Luxemburg had set out her views on the proletariat and culture in 1903. Again, they leave little room for misunderstanding. She explained, and this argument was reiterated by Trotsky two decades later in Literature and Revolution against the advocates of so-called “proletarian culture,” that in the history of previous class struggles, aspiring classes had been able to anticipate their political rule by establishing intellectual dominance, setting up a new science and a new art against the obsolete culture of the old ruling authority during its decadence.

She explained: “The proletariat is in a very different position. As a non-possessing class, it cannot in the course of its struggle upwards spontaneously create a mental culture of its own while it remains in the framework of bourgeois society. Within that society, and so long as its economic foundations persist, there can be no other culture than a bourgeois culture...

“The utmost it can do today is to safeguard bourgeois culture from the vandalism of the bourgeois reaction, and create the social conditions requisite for a free cultural development. Even along these lines, the workers, within the extant form of society, can only advance insofar as they can create for themselvesthe intellectual weapons needed in their struggle for liberation.” [20]

To be continued

[14] “Leninism and Workers’ Clubs” in Problems of Everyday Life (New York and London, 2004), p. 365.
[15] “A Few Words on How to Raise a Human Being” in Problems of Everyday Life, p. 172.
[16] The Condition of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, Middlesex and New York, 1987), p. 245.
[17] The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (New York and Oxford, 1985), p. 148.
[18] Ibid, p. 138.
[19] www.marxists.org/archive/mehring/1918/marx/tranpref.htm
[20] www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1903/misc/stagnation.htm

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