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

Part 3


The following is the third 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.

The origins of the Proletarian Culture movement

The particular conditions in backward Russia produced a somewhat different dynamic. To a certain extent, many of the cultural questions that arose in the German socialist movement before 1914 did not become contentious issues in Russia until after the taking of power by the working class under Bolshevik leadership in October 1917.

The debate over “proletarian culture” in the USSR and its consequences are quite critical for our work today. I will attempt to suggest certain of the most crucial themes of that debate.

As I noted, Trotsky and Voronsky, following an initial intervention by Lenin, upheld and deepened the Marxist viewpoint on art and culture. The reconstruction of the country following seven years of war and civil war was an immense project, particularly for the first workers’ state, established in backward Russia, surrounded by enemies and cut off from the cultural and technological benefits in more economically advanced Western Europe. Raising the cultural level of the masses impressed itself on the Bolshevik leaders as the question of questions.

Opposition to classical Marxist conceptions came from various quarters, including, as Frederick Choate notes in his foreword to the volume of Voronsky’s writings, “from unexpected places: not from open enemies of the revolution, but from poorly educated supporters of the Soviet regime in general, and from representatives of the ‘Proletarian Culture’ movement in particular.” [21]

The central figure in the Proletarian Culture movement, or Proletcult, for short, was Aleksandr Bogdanov. He deserves a certain amount of attention for his role in the history of Soviet cultural life, as well as his significance as a “forefather” of many ideological trends in opposition to Marxism throughout the twentieth century—trends that, in some cases, are still with us today. Those with a history in the Marxist movement will know him as a principal target of Lenin’s extraordinary work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).

Bogdanov was undoubtedly a remarkable personality. Trained as a doctor, with a great interest in physiology, technology and natural science, the eventual author of two utopian science fiction novels, Bogdanov, who was arrested and exiled three times, joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1899, the same year he received his medical degree.

He worked closely with Lenin following the Bolshevik-Menshevik split and through the 1905 Revolution. However, the defeat of the revolution and the retreat of the working class led Bogdanov to draw certain quite false philosophical and political conclusions.

Infatuated by the latest discoveries in physics and the natural sciences, particularly in regard to atomic structure, and subscribing to the false conclusions drawn from these discoveries by certain of the scientists themselves (Ernst Mach, for example), Bogdanov rejected dialectical materialism in favor of “positivist” notions advanced as the latest word in philosophy.

Bogdanov, following certain of these scientists, rejected materialism and argued that things or bodies were “complexes of sensations,” and that “we sense only our sensations,” as one leading scientist put it. [22] In other words, we know only color, taste, odor, hardness, coldness, etc., but not the things-in-themselves. The materialists, he claimed, were “metaphysicians” for insisting that the world existed entirely independently of our consciousness of it.

Lenin’s strenuous defense of dialectical materialism against Bogdanov dealt a tremendous blow to the latter’s political and philosophical credibility, particularly to his pretensions as the representative in the Marxist movement of the “new science.” He left active political life in 1911 and, unlike Lunacharsky and Pokrovsky, other leading members of his group, never rejoined the Bolshevik Party, devoting himself instead to “organizational science” and “proletarian culture.”

Bogdanov also drew some very mistaken and disorienting political conclusions from the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. While Lenin and Trotsky were straining to abstract from the experience every critical lesson as part of the preparation for the next social upheaval, Bogdanov was wondering out loud if the defeat did not arise from some defect in the working class.

It seemed to him that the revolution’s failure stemmed from organic weaknesses in the working class itself, its ideological immaturity and lack of cultural independence from the bourgeoisie. This, of course, has been a common response to setbacks, almost a gut reaction, of “leftist” intellectuals of a certain stripe. We continue to see this, on a grand scale, in our own day. Bogdanov was one of the founders of this misbegotten tendency, although, it must be said, made of far higher and better material than his counterparts today.

Since the political struggle had proven inadequate, he concluded, “it was necessary to develop and systematize elements of the incipient culture—what he called ‘elements of socialism in the present.’ [23]... [The struggle for socialism] involved ‘the creation of new elements of socialism in the proletariat itself, in the internal relations, and in its conditions of life: the development of a socialist proletarian culture.” [24]

Perhaps summing up his position, one historian writes, “What counted, in particular, was the conscious cultivation of the embryonic elements of socialism prior to the seizure of revolution. In Bogdanov’s words, ‘Socialist development will be crowned with socialist revolution.’” [25]

This is not our conception at all. We fight for the maximum political and cultural development of our own forces and the widest possible section of the working class. That is why we are here. That is what we do every day. We cede to no one the responsibility for constructing an international socialist culture. We fight for a party with the largest possible membership, periphery and influence.

We understand, however, that the political process is objectively driven. We are here, notwithstanding all the individual paths by which we arrived at this location, for definite historical and social reasons. Socialism comes into existence as a movement, as an ideology, because of the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism and the reflection of those contradictions in the minds of the greatest thinkers.

There is not an ounce of fatalism in our approach, but we recognize that capitalism and its crisis do the lion’s share of the work. The task of humanity, as Lenin explained, is to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution so that we are able to adapt our consciousness to this reality “in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible.” [26]

This is very far removed from Bogdanov’s desperate project of socially, culturally and morally renovating the working class. In the end, such intellectuals, and we have our own share of neo-utopians, semi-idealists and muddleheads today, weigh up the working class and always find it lacking.

Such views were common in the New Left and associated cultural circles in the US (and elsewhere) in the 1960s and 1970s. This notion, that the working class is inevitably unprepared for or even unworthy of its revolutionary role, is profoundly reactionary and antithetical to the historical materialist approach. We work toward the cultural and moral improvement of the population; no doubt, a significant change in mood is indispensable for socialism to take deep root. But one must have a sense of historical proportion. There are definite limits, produced by the objective facts of life under capitalism, to that process.

The working class, because of its exploited and oppressed condition, because it is propertyless and culturally deprived, does not come forward politically as one. There are more advanced layers; our party finds support within those layers. Other layers will be sympathetic, but not active. Still others will remain more or less neutral. Others, in the minority, the most backward, will be actively hostile.

The development of the economic and political catastrophe of capitalism will propel masses of people into struggle. Everything then depends on the existence of Marxist cadres who can politically educate and prepare the most advanced sections of the working population for the struggle for power. We insist that an objective impulse to social revolution exists and we base our activity on that.

To Marx, in the German Ideology, “communist consciousness” was a product of the social revolution, not its prerequisite: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can take place only in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fit to found society anew.” [27]

In 1932 Trotsky explained to a French writer: “Those who speak of proletarian literature, counterposing it to bourgeois literature, evidently have in mind not several works but a totality of artistic creation that, to their way of thinking, constitutes an element of a new, ‘proletarian’ culture.... If capitalism offered such possibilities to the proletariat, it would no longer be capitalism. There would no longer be any reason to overthrow it.

“To portray a new, proletarian culture within the confines of capitalism is to be a reformist utopian, to believe that capitalism offers an unlimited perspective of improvement.

“The task of the proletariat is not to create a new culture within capitalism, but rather to overthrow capitalism for a new culture.” [28]

So we have the historical materialist view, with its emphasis on the objective impulse to revolution, vs. the subjectivist view, which begins with consciousness, the moral condition of the working class. What the adherents of the latter are really talking about is sorting out family relations and the sex lives of the population—in other words, everyone must be liberated from all neuroses and repression before a revolution is possible.

A blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of the Proletcult movement, founded on the eve of the October Revolution, would be inappropriate. In any event, the organization as an organization is not of the most exceptional importance.

Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks were prepared, in the early days of the revolution, to give Bogdanov and his co-thinkers the benefit of the doubt. The old political-philosophical differences had lost some of their immediacy. In any event, the regime was strapped, engaged in fighting a bloody civil war. Here was an organization ostensibly dedicated, and no doubt sincerely, in its own fashion, to the education of the working class.

The Proletcult movement was, in the first place, supported and promoted by the Bolsheviks. The organization opened workshops, studios, theaters, classes. It was granted semi-official status as an organization for the education of the working class. If it dedicated itself to literacy, to adult education, to matters as elementary as proper hygiene, to teaching the classics, to encouraging workers’ self-expression and self-confidence...

Alas, this was not good enough for Bogdanov and his co-thinkers—they had something far grander in mind. Wishing away the extremely backward conditions in the new workers’ state, or ignoring them, a Proletcult resolution 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.” [29]

All manner of harebrained schemes came out of the Bogdanov-inspired movement—proletarian culture, proletarian morals, the proletarian university, proletarian science.

Equally pernicious as the dreaming up of these idle schemes was the hostility of many members toward past culture and art. In the most famous poem associated with the Proletcult, We, Vladimir Kirillov wrote, “In the name of our tomorrow we will burn the Raphaels, destroy the museums, and trample on the flowers of art.” [30]

Proletcult, as far as one can tell, carried out a good deal of useful elementary work. The organization established studios open to workers and young people; many, hungry for culture, flocked through its doors. Numerous distinguished artists, musicians and theater directors taught classes at the Proletcult. By 1920 it claimed 400,000 members, although there are suggestions that those figures are somewhat inflated.

Lenin was hostile to Bogdanov’s schematics. He chided the Proletcultists 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 cruder types of pre-bourgeois culture, i.e., bureaucratic culture or serf culture, etc.” [31]

He kept a watchful eye on Proletcult’s antics and once the civil war ended and a period of economic reconstruction commenced, Lenin urged that Proletcult be subordinated to the government’s education department. Why was a special organization, subsidized by the government, and, what’s more, burdened with a variety of farfetched notions, required? Moreover, the political situation, worsened by great economic hardship, remained extremely tense. The possibility of a “Bogdanovite” party, rooted in political confusion and an adaptation to Russia’s backwardness, arising to challenge the Bolsheviks was not inconceivable.

Lenin accordingly drew up his famous draft resolution, On Proletarian Culture, which argued that “Marxism has ... assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture.” [32]

The Proletcult’s subordination to the government education department irrevocably altered the movement’s place in Soviet cultural life. Its claim to be the “third path” (along with the party and the trade unions) to proletarian power now lost all credibility. Bogdanov withdrew in 1921 and the organization declined, until it was officially put to death by the Stalinist decree that ended all independent artistic groupings in 1932.

However, that did not put an end to “the strange career” of proletarian culture. Indeed, the most vituperative and reactionary uses of the phrase, in political abuse of Trotsky, Voronsky and the genuine upholders of socialist-artistic tradition, were yet to come. Followers of Bogdanov remained active in a number of cultural and literary organizations, such as VAPP (the All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) and MAPP (the Moscow Association of Proletarian Writers), and around publications such as October and On Guard.

A “proletarian writers” resolution from 1925 provides some flavor of the level of argument. It began: “Artistic literature is a powerful weapon of the class struggle ... the rule of the proletariat is incompatible with the rule of non-proletarian ideology, and consequently with non-proletarian literature.... Artistic literature in class society not only cannot be neutral, it actively serves one or another class.” [33]

“Trotskyism,” it declared, “in the field of art signifies the peaceful collaboration of classes in which the role of hegemon is maintained completely for the representatives of the old bourgeois culture.” [34]

Who were these demagogues? Voronsky called them “‘brave little schoolboys’ with penknives” who “don’t know what they’re doing.” He argued that their false point of view “reflects the moods of wider circles within our party, and the party youth in particular.” [35] These younger, inexperienced elements were used by the rising bureaucracy to corrode the atmosphere, introducing anti-intellectualism and eventually anti-internationalism.

One historian points out that the new generation of guardians of the proletariat in art came generally from the petty intelligentsia in the provinces and had far narrower intellectual origins than the revolutionary generation. She writes that “when this new generation made its entry into Soviet culture, their militant parochialism went against the general tenor of intellectual life. The consequences of their triumph are with us still.” [36]

As I suggested, the strange career of proletarian culture took an unexpected turn in the mid-1920s, becoming something quite different from the idea Bogdanov had in mind. The theory, latched on to by the rising bureaucracy and its “militantly parochial” hangers-on, became an adaptation to the prevailing unfavorable conditions and a complement to the Stalinist conception of socialism in a single country.

In May 1925, Bukharin explicitly declared that Trotsky, in his rejection of the very notion 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.” [37]

To be continued

[21] Foreword, Art as the Cognition of Life (Oak Park, Michigan, 1998), p. x.
[22] V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (New York, 1972), p. 36.
[23] Zenovia A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Ithaca and London, 1988), p. 31.
[24] Ibid, p. 39.
[25] Ibid, pp. 40-41.
[26] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 337.
[27] German Ideology excerpted in Marx and Engels on The Socialist Revolution (Moscow, 1978), p. 44.
[28] Maurice Parijanine, “‘Proletarian Literature,’” appendix to Writings of Leon Trotsky: 1932 (New York, 1973), p. 352.
[29] Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, p. 148.
[30] Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990), p. 131.
[31] Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, p. 172.
[32] “On Proletarian Culture” in Lenin On Culture and Cultural Revolution (Moscow, 1978), p. 147.
[33] Art as the Cognition of Life, Appendix 1, p. 436.
[34] Ibid, p. 439.
[35] “Art as the Cognition of Life” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 136.
[36] Katerina Clark, “The ‘Quiet Revolution’ in Soviet Intellectual Life,” in Russia in the Era of NEP: Explorations in Soviet Society and Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, 1991), p. 226.
[37] Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, p. 169.