Leon Trotsky’s CLASS AND ART Final part: ‘Tactics in Literature’

All Trades Unions Alliance Secretary DAVE WILTSHIRE addressing the News Line Anniversary rally
All Trades Unions Alliance Secretary DAVE WILTSHIRE addressing the News Line Anniversary rally

THIS speech was delivered on May 9, 1924 during discussions at the Press Department of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) on Party Policy in the Field of Imaginative Literature. The issue was the cultural hot potato of the day, with sections of the party leadership insisting that since the working class was the ruling class it would produce its own proletarian culture and that the party must support this. These ‘Proletkult’ factions poured scorn and were bitterly hostile to petit bourgeois ‘fellow travellers’ many of whom put themselves at the disposal of the revolution and sought to assist its struggle for culture. Note the free and robust nature of the discussion, with no worship of the ‘great leaders’ that was to be a feature of the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Allow me, comrades, to say a little more about Comrade Vardin’s tactics in the field of literature, in relation to his last article in Na Postu. In my view this is not tactics but a disgrace! An amazingly supercilious tone, but deadly little knowledge or understanding. No understanding of art as art, that is, as a particular, specific field of human creativity; nor any Marxist understanding of the conditions and ways of development of art. Instead, an unworthy juggling of quotations from White-Guard publications abroad which, do you see, have praised Comrade Voronsky for publishing the works of Pilnyak, or ought to have praised him, or said something against Vardin and, maybe, for Voronsky, and so on, and so on – in that spirit of “circumstantial evidence” which has to make up for the lack of knowledge and understanding. Comrade Vardin’s last article is built on the idea that a White-Guard newspaper supported Voronsky against Vardin, writing that the whole conflict came down to the point that Voronsky approached literature from the literary point of view. “Comrade Voronsky, by his political behaviour,” says Vardin, “has fully deserved this White-Guard kiss.” But this is an insinuation, not an analysis of the question!

If Vardin disagrees with the multiplication table, while Voronsky finds himself in this matter on the same side as a White Guard who knows arithmetic, Voronsky’s political reputation has nothing to fear from that. Yes, art has to be approached as art, literature as literature, that is, as a quite specific field of human endeavour. Of course we have a class criterion in art too, but this class criterion must be refracted artistically, that is, in conformity with the quite specific peculiarities of that field of creativity to which we are applying our criterion. The bourgeoisie knows this very well, it likewise approaches art from its class point of view, it knows how to get from art what it needs, but only because it approaches art as art. What is there to wonder at if an artistically-literate bourgeois has a disrespectful attitude to Vardin, who approaches art from the standpoint of political “circumstantial evidence”, and not with a class-artistic criterion? And if there is anything that makes me feel ashamed it is not that in this dispute I may find myself formally in the same boat with some White Guard who understands art, but that, before the eyes of this White Guard I am obliged to explain the first letters in the alphabet of art to a Party publicist who writes articles about art. What a cheapening of Marxism this is: instead of making a Marxist analysis of the question, one finds a quotation from Rul or Dyen and around it piles up abuse and insinuations!

One cannot approach art as one can politics, not because artistic creation is a religious rite or something mystical, as somebody here ironically said, but because it has its own laws of development, and above all because in artistic creation an enormous role is played by subconscious processes – slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance, just because they are subconscious. It has been said here that those writings of Pilnyak’s which are closer to Communism are feebler than those which are politically further away from us. What is the explanation? Why, just this, that on the rationalistic plane Pilnyak is ahead of himself as an artist. To consciously swing himself round on his own axis even only a few degrees is a very difficult task for an artist, often connected with a profound, sometimes fatal crisis. And what we are considering is not an individual or group change in creative endeavour, but such a change on the class, social scale. This is a long and very complicated process. When we speak of proletarian literature not in the sense of particular more or less successful verses or stories, but in the incomparably more weighty sense in which we speak of bourgeois literature, we have no right to forget for one moment the extraordinary cultural backwardness of the overwhelming majority of the proletariat.

Art is created on the basis of a continual everyday, cultural, ideological inter-relationship between a class and its artists. Between the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie and their artists there was no split in daily life. The artists lived, and still live, in a bourgeois milieu, breathing the air of bourgeois salons, they received and are receiving hypodermic inspirations from their class. This nourishes the subconscious processes of their creativity. Does the proletariat of today offer such a cultural-ideological milieu, in which the new artist may obtain, without leaving it in his day-to-day existence, all the inspiration he needs while at the same time mastering the procedures of his craft? No, the working masses are culturally extremely backward; the illiteracy or low level of literacy of the majority of the workers presents in itself a very great obstacle to this. And above all, the proletariat, in so far as it remains a proletariat, is compelled to expend its best forces in political struggle, in restoring the economy, and in meeting elementary cultural needs, fighting against illiteracy, lousiness, syphilis, etc. Of course, the political methods and revolutionary customs of the proletariat can also be called its culture; but this, in any case, is a sort of culture which is destined to die out as a new, real culture develops. And this new culture will be culture all the more to the extent that the proletariat has ceased to be a proletariat, that is, the more successfully and completely socialist society develops.

Mayakovsky wrote a very powerful piece called The Thirteen Apostles, the revolutionariness of which was still rather cloudy and formless. And when this same Mayakovsky decided to swing himself round to the proletarian line, and wrote 150 Million, he suffered a most frightful rationalistic downfall. This means that in his logic he had outrun his real creative condition. With Pilnyak, as we have said already, a similar disparity is to be observed between his conscious striving and the unconscious processes of creation. To this must be added merely this, that arch-proletarian works also do not in themselves provide the writer in present-day conditions with any guarantees that his creativity will prove to be organically linked with the class. Nor do groupings of proletarian writers provide this guarantee, precisely because the writer, by devoting himself to artistic work, is compelled, in existing conditions, to separate himself from the milieu of his own class and breathe an atmosphere which, after all, is the same as that breathed by the “fellow-travellers”. This is just one literary circle among other literary circles.

And as regards future prospects, as they are called, I wanted to say something, but my time is long since up. (Voices: “Please go on!”) “Give us, at least, some view of the way ahead,” comrades come back at me. What does this mean? The Na Postu comrades and their allied groups are steering towards a proletarian literature created by the circle method, in a laboratory, so to speak. This way forward I reject absolutely. I repeat once more that it is not possible to put in one historical category feudal, bourgeois and proletarian literature. Such a historical classification is radically false. I spoke about this in my book, and all the objections I have heard seem to me unconvincing and frivolous. Those who talk about proletarian literature seriously and over a long period, who make a platform of proletarian culture, are thinking, where this question is concerned, along the line of a formal analogy with bourgeois culture.

The bourgeoisie took power and created its own culture; the proletariat, they think having taken power, will create proletarian culture. But the bourgeoisie is a rich and therefore educated class. Bourgeois culture existed already before the bourgeoisie had formally taken power. The bourgeoisie took power in order to perpetuate its rule. The proletariat in bourgeois society is a propertyless and deprived class, and so it cannot create a culture of its own. Only after taking power does it really become aware of its own frightful cultural backwardness. In order to overcome this it needs to abolish those conditions which keep it in the position of a class, the proletariat. The more we can speak of a new culture in being, the less this will possess a class character. This is the fundamental problem – and the principal difference, in so far as we are arguing about the way forward. Some, starting from the principle of proletarian culture, say: we have in mind only the epoch of transition to socialism – those twenty, thirty, fifty years during which the bourgeois world will be transformed. Can the literature, intended and suitable for the proletariat, which will be created in this period, be called proletarian literature? In any case, we are giving this term “proletarian literature” a totally different meaning from the first, broad meaning we spoke of. But this is not the main problem. This basic feature of the transition period, taken on the international scale, is intense class struggle.

Those twenty to thirty years of which we speak will be first and foremost a period of open civil war. And civil war, though preparing the way for the great culture of the future, is in itself extremely unfavourable in its effect on contemporary culture. In its immediate effect October more or less killed literature. Poets and artists fell silent. Was this an accident? No. Long ago it was said: when the sound of weapons is heard, the Muses fall silent. A breathing-space was needed if literature was to revive. It began to revive in our country at the same time as NEP began. Reviving, it at once took on the colouring of the fellow-travellers. It is impossible not to reckon with the facts. The tensest moments, that is, those in which our revolutionary epoch finds its highest expression, are unfavourable for literary, and in general for artistic creation. If revolution begins tomorrow in Germany or in all Europe, will this bring an immediate flowering of proletarian literature? Certainly not. It will weaken and destroy, not expand, artistic creation, for we shall again have to mobilise and arm one and all. And amid the clash of arms, the Muses are silent. (Cries: “Demyan wasn’t silent.”) Yes, you keep harping on Demyan, but it won’t do. You begin by proclaiming a new era of proletarian literature, you create circles, associations, groups for this literature, you again and again refer to Demyan. But Demyan is a product of the old, pre-October literature. He has not founded any school, nor will he found any. He was brought up on Krylov, Gogol and Nekrasov. In this sense he is the revolutionary last-born child of our old literature. The very fact of your referring to him is a refutation of your theory.

What is the way forward? Fundamentally, it is the growth of literacy, education, special courses for workers, the cinema, the gradual reconstruction of everyday life, the further advance in the cultural level. This is the fundamental process, intersecting with new intensifications of civil war, on an all-European and world scale. On this basis, the line of purely literary creation will be an extremely zigzag one. Kuznitsa, Oktyabr and other such groups are in no sense landmarks along the road of the cultural class creativity of the proletariat, but merely episodes of a superficial nature. If from these groups a few good young poets or writers emerge, this won’t give us proletarian literature, but it will be useful. But if you try to transform MAPP and VAPP into factories of proletarian literature, you will certainly fail, just as you have failed up to now. A member of one of these associations regards himself as, in one way, a representative of the proletariat in the world of art, in another way as a representative of art in the world of the proletariat. Membership of VAPP confers a sort of title. It is objected that VAPP is only a Communist circle in which a young poet obtains the necessary inspiration, and so on. Well, and what about the Party? If he is a real poet and a genuine Communist, the Party in all its work will give him incomparably more inspiration than MAPP and VAPP. Of course, the Party must and will pay very great attention to every young artistic talent that is akin or ideologically close to it. But its fundamental task in relation to literature and culture is raising the level of literacy – simple literacy, political literacy, scientific literacy – of the working masses, and thereby laying the foundation for a new art.

I know that this prospect does not satisfy you. It seems insufficiently definite. Why? Because you envisage the further development of culture in too regular, too evolutionary a way: the present shoots of proletarian literature will, you think, grow and develop, becoming continually richer, and so genuine proletarian literature will be created, which later will change into socialist literature. No, things won’t develop like that. After the present breathing-space, when a literature strongly coloured by the “fellow-travellers” is being created – not by the Party, not by the state – there will come a period of new, terrible spasms of civil war. We shall inevitably be drawn into it. It is quite possible that revolutionary poets will give us martial verses, but the continuity of literary development will nevertheless be sharply broken. All forces will be concentrated on the direct struggle. Shall we then have a second breathing-space? I do not know. But the result of this new, much mightier period of civil war, if we are victorious, will be the complete securing and consolidation of the socialist basis of our economy. We shall receive fresh technical and organisational help. Our development will go forward at a different rate. And on that basis, after the zigzags and upheavals of civil war, only then will begin a real building of culture, and, consequently, also the creation of a new literature. But this will be socialist culture, built entirely on constant intercourse between the artist and the masses who will have come of age culturally, linked by ties of solidarity. You do not proceed in your thinking from this vision of the future: you have your own, the vision of a group. You want our party, in the name of the proletariat, to officially adopt your little artistic factory. You think that, having planted a kidney-bean in a flower pot, you are capable of raising the tree of proletarian literature. That is not the way. No tree can be grown from a kidney-bean.