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

Part 4


The following is the fourth and finalpart 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.

Trotsky and Voronsky oppose the vulgarizers

The arguments of Trotsky and Voronsky against proletarian culture focused on a number of critical issues: 1) the ‘cultural question’ in the proletarian as opposed to the bourgeois revolution; 2) the nature of the relationship between a class and its culture; 3) a Marxist approach to artistic and creative work.

Like Luxemburg and Trotsky, Voronsky explained that the working class came to power in a far different manner than the bourgeoisie did in its day. The bourgeoisie matured economically and culturally, as an exploiting class, to a considerable extent within the framework of feudal society. However, “By its very position inside bourgeois society, the proletariat remains economically and culturally deprived... Therefore, when it overthrows the bourgeoisie and takes power into its own hands, one of the sharpest and most acute problems is the problem of assimilating the entire enormous sum of cultural achievements of past epochs... In illiterate, hungry, plundered, destitute and wooden Russia, with its remnants of Asiaticism and serfdom, we are ominously reminded of this literally at every step.” [38]

Consider our situation. We have this school. It is an immense and indispensable achievement. We do not underestimate its significance for an instant. This, if you like, is a ‘proletarian school’ or a ‘socialist school.’ If ‘proletarian culture’ exists within capitalism, this is it! Its qualitative political and intellectual level is extraordinary.

But consider the resources the bourgeoisie had at its disposal before it assumed political power from the ancien régime: universities, newspapers and journals, cultural academies, institutions of all varieties, all financed and supported by an already prosperous and influential class.

Trotsky sums up this problem graphically, pointing out “that the German bourgeoisie, with its incomparable technology, philosophy, science and art, allowed the power of the state to lie in the hands of a feudal bureaucratic class as late as 1918 and decided, or, more correctly, was forced to take power into its own hands only when the material foundations of German culture began to fall to pieces.” [39]

In other words, many of the world-historical conquests of German ‘bourgeois’ culture, in philosophy, in art, in science, were accomplished under “feudal bureaucratic” political rule: Hegel, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Kleist, Büchner, Wagner, Fontane, Hauptmann, even the early novels of Thomas Mann, the quintessential chronicler of the German bourgeoisie, all under “feudal bureaucratic” rule. And what about “bourgeois science”? Einstein was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute in 1914, still under the rule of the feudal-bureaucratic class. Only with the collapse of the Empire and the flight of the Kaiser in November 1918 did the bourgeoisie formally take the political reins, reluctantly as Trotsky notes, by which time ‘bourgeois culture’ was, in fact, already in the throes of deep crisis!

But, argued the ‘proletarian’ critics, why could not the working class create an art and culture within a far shorter span of time? Fundamental questions of perspectives were involved.

Those who began from the Marxist-internationalist perspective conceived of the problem of culture-building in the USSR as entirely dominated by the approaching European and world revolution. Trotsky famously described the Bolsheviks as “merely soldiers in a campaign... bivouacking for a day... Our entire present-day economic and cultural work is nothing more than a bringing of ourselves into order between two battles and two campaigns... Our epoch is not yet an epoch of new culture, but only the entrance to it.” [40]

There is no such thing and can be no such thing as a proletarian culture, for the simple reason that the working class comes to power for the express purpose of doing away with class culture and creating the basis for a human, classless culture. Unlike the bourgeoisie before it, the working class does not come to power in order to initiate its own proletarian epoch, to perpetuate its rule. The proletarian regime is unique in that its successful functioning involves its own dissolution.

Bukharin and the Proletcultists had something quite different in mind, an extended historical period, an independent period of ‘proletarian rule,’ with its own culture, morals and science, supposedly. In fact, what they had in mind, semi-consciously or not by this time, was an indefinite period of rule by the national-opportunist bureaucracy.

The task of the proletarian intelligentsia in general, both Trotsky and Voronsky argued, was not the abstract and artificial formation of some new culture existing in mid-air, but the urgent, definite task of “culture-bearing,” the planned and arduous job of “imparting to the backward masses... the essential elements of the culture which already exists.” [41]

A new culture, a genuinely socialist culture, could not be created by small numbers of people in a laboratory, both Trotsky and Voronsky insisted. The relationship between a class and its culture was immensely complex, not solved by a few phrases, much less ultimatums and shouting at the top of one’s voice.

What we have in the Soviet Union at present, Voronsky pointed out persuasively, is an art organically and inevitably bound up with the old, an art that people attempt to adapt to new needs, the needs of the transitional period. “Ideological slant doesn’t change the situation at all, and doesn’t justify the counterposition of this art to the art of the past, as an original cultural value and force... For what we actually have for the time being is the culture, science and art of previous epochs. The man of the future social structure will create his own science, his own art and his own culture on the foundations of a new material base.” [42] This was profound and sobering. But it was bound not to satisfy impatient and vulgar thinkers.

Voronsky and Trotsky vigorously opposed the superficial, thoughtless and subjectivist approach to artistic work of the On Guard group, VAPP and others. Voronsky is tremendously eloquent on this question. He tirelessly argues for sincerity, honesty, psychological insight, a feeling for “the powerful instincts and forces of life” [43], above superficial political agreement. He insisted, above all, on the great objective, irreplaceable value of art as a means of seeing, feeling, knowing the world.

In 1932, living in Leningrad, the anti-Stalinist writer Victor Serge (in a piece included in a valuable collection of his articles on literature and politics that was recently published) noted, “The mechanisms of artistic creativity are far from being completely understood by us. In any case, it is certain that for many artists a complete attempt to subordinate creative activity, where a number of unconscious and subconscious factors come into play, to a rigorously conscious direction, would result in an awkward impoverishment of his work and personality. Would the book gain in clarity of ideas what it had lost in spontaneity, human complexity, deep sincerity, and rich contradictions? In some cases, perhaps. But the charm and effect of a work of literature come precisely from the intimate contact between reader and author, at levels where the purely intellectual language of ideas is no longer enough, a sort of sharing that cannot be attained other than by a work of art; by weakening the ways this sharing takes place, we weaken everything; I do not see what can be gained by this, although I understand all too well that the politician prefers above all others novels that are based on the articles of his programme.” [44]

The Proletcultists, inspired by Bogdanov, operated in fixed categories. There were three basic class groupings in the USSR—proletariat, layers of the petty-bourgeoisie, and the remnants of the shattered bourgeoisie and nobility; hence there must correspond three basic categories of literature: proletarian, petty-bourgeois and bourgeois-landowning. And they attempted to make sense of things with such naked, abstract and simplified schemas.

Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and the rest were poets and writers from the gentry, acknowledged Voronsky, but did that mean that their work lacked all objective value, all truth-telling?

The honest artist, by the very nature of his or her pursuit, can paint a picture of the world that contradicts his or her conscious notions and even class interests. Of course, there are limits to this. Class position and self-interest can corrupt and destroy an artist’s work; a generally unfavorable intellectual climate may not provide him or her with the necessary depth of feeling and understanding, even on the unconscious level, to propel such a struggle for the ‘facts of life.’

Voronsky placed great emphasis on intuition in the process of ‘removing the veils’ created by everyday life and habits and truly seeing the world. But intuition, the artist being able to identify the precise detail or image that will capture the truth without fully realizing why he or she is able to do it, is not a mystical process. Voronsky explains that “intuition is nothing but the truths, discovered at some time by previous generations, with the help of rational experience, which have passed into the sphere of the subconscious.” [45]

The Proletcultists argued that the artist “used reality,” transmitted ideology, organized “the psyche and consciousness of the reader in the direction of the finite tasks of the proletariat,” etc. [46] The question left unanswered by those who spoke about organizing the psyche or the consciousness or the emotions was: but does it do so “in correspondence with living reality”? Voronsky asked the proletcultists point-blank: “Do our subjective sensations have objective significance?” [47] We return here to the philosophical questions that Lenin took up against Bogdanov 15 years earlier.

Materialists, Voronsky insisted, understand that “we cognize an objective world that is independent of us. Our images [including artistic images] of the world are not exact copies, but neither are they vague hieroglyphs of the world: moreover, they are not merely subjective in character. Practice determines what it is in our images that has only personal significance and what is a genuine, accurate representation that provides the truth.” [48]

The artist who ‘surrenders’ to the world and its infinite richness, Voronsky passionately argued, who reduces the socially distorting tendencies in his or her work to the greatest possible extent, finds the world as it truly is, “in its most lively and beautiful forms.” [49]

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, we have consistently posed the question: Was there an alternative to Stalinism?—and answered in the affirmative. Was there an alternative to “proletarian culture” in art? Yes, above all represented by the efforts of Voronsky and his associates, provided political and ideological assistance by Trotsky, to develop a new Soviet literature in the 1920s.

Voronsky’s principal work was editing the journal, Red Virgin Soil, which published much of the most remarkable fiction and poetry in the USSR from 1921 to 1927, when he was removed from the editorship by Stalin’s Politburo.

His name is invariably associated with the work of the so-called “fellow travelers,” a term coined by Trotsky to describe a disparate group of literary figures who generally sympathized with the revolution, or accepted it, but maintained their distance from the Bolsheviks and Marxism.

Voronsky’s attitude, and the attitude of Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and others, combined ideological firmness with great patience and flexibility. After all, Voronsky’s concern was not with scoring immediate political points, like his vulgarizing opponents, but with the emergence of a critical-minded and elevated culture that would make a difference in the lives of millions. He encouraged those writers who honestly and artistically shed light on Soviet reality, warts and all.

Voronsky resolutely stood his ground against ferocious and increasingly vile criticism, admitting the fellow travelers’ “ideological jumble and confusion” [50] but insisting, “artistically they are honest; their works give pieces of real life, and not saccharine legends... These fellow-travelers were the first to aim their blows at wooden agitation pieces... They approached the Russian revolution, and not revolution in general, outside of time and space.” [51]

We have much to learn from this work. Of course, we have very few “fellow travelers” in the literal sense at the moment, i.e., artists who sympathize with our program of socialist revolution. But there are certainly many “fellow critics” of capitalist society, some of whom will become “fellow travelers,” or perhaps more, as the political situation matures. And there are plenty of semi-critics, one-quarter critics, as well as quasi-critics and pseudo-critics.

Adopting the proper approach and tone, that balance of criticism, ideological sharpness, friendly advice, encouragement, “shots across the bow” and so forth, is no small matter. It takes a considerable amount of political and artistic experience. Mistakes are sometimes made. But Voronsky’s (and Trotsky’s) work along these lines is invaluable.

In conclusion, I simply want to bring your attention to the work of Voronsky as the de facto leader and certainly ideological guide of the Pereval [Mountain Pass] group, composed of younger writers. Here, perhaps, Voronsky found the most receptive audience of artists, talented and sensitive young people, committed to the revolution and hostile to the banalities and empty-headed rhetoric of the proletcultists and budding Stalinists.

As one of the Perevalist writers, Abram Lezhnev, wrote, “For us, socialism is not an enormous workers’ dormitory, as it is for the maniacs of productionism and advocates of factography... For us, it is the great epoch of freeing man from all the chains which bind him, when all the capabilities in his nature are revealed with full force.” [52]

The 1927 platform of the group, on the eve of the catastrophe for Soviet art, is another tragic reminder of what was lost to Stalinism. Historian Robert Maguire sums up the Pereval platform: “There was strong disapproval of the notion that any one literary group, however distinguished, should enjoy ‘hegemony’; support for the principle of ‘free creative competition’ in all the arts; a definition of literature’s task as ‘the continual recording of the human personality in its inexhaustible variety’; a protest against ‘any attempts to schematize man, vulgar oversimplification of any kind, deadening standardization, any belittling of the writer’s personality... ; an insistence that literature must link itself to the classical heritage, not only of Russia but of the world; a concept of the work of art as a unique organic individuality ‘where elements of thought and feeling are recast esthetically’; an emphasis on high standards of literary craftsmanship; and a suggestion of the ‘sincerity’ doctrine in the insistence on the ‘revolutionary conscience of each artist’ which ‘does not permit him to conceal his inner world.’” [53]

We would be happy, I think, to accept these principles as a general guide to our own work today.


[38] “On Proletarian Art and the Artistic Policy of Our Party” in Art as the Cognition of Life (Oak Park, Michigan, 1998), p. 148.
[39] Literature and Revolution (London, 1991), p. 217.
[40] Ibid, pp. 219-220.
[41] Ibid, p. 222.
[42] “On Proletarian Art and the Artistic Policy of Our Party” in Art as the Cognition of Life, pp. 160-161.
[43] “In Memory of Esenin” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 244.
[44] “Literature and Revolution” in Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution (London, 2004), p. 88.
[45] “On Art” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 208.
[46] “Art as the Cognition of Life” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 96.
[47] “On Artistic Truth” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 324.
[48] Ibid, p. 324.
[49] “The Art of Seeing the World” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 375.
[50] “On Proletarian Art and the Artistic Policy of Our Party” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 167.
[51] “Art as the Cognition of Life” in Art as the Cognition of Life, p. 125.
[52] Foreword, Art as the Cognition of Life, p. xix.
[53] Red Virgin Soil: Soviet Literature in the 1920s (Ithaca and London, 1987), p. 401.