Leon Trotsky’s CLASS AND ART – PART ONE Culture under the proletarian dictatorship

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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.

TROTSKY: It seems to me that it is Comrade Raskolnikov who has given most distinctive expression here to the point of view of the Na Postu group – you can’t get away from that, comrades of the Na Postu group! After a long absence, Raskolnikov spoke here with all the freshness of Afghanistan, whereas the other Na Postu people, having tasted a little of the tree of knowledge, tried to cover their nakedness – except Comrade Vardin, however, who goes on living the way he was born. (Vardin: “Why, you didn’t hear what I said here!”) True, I arrived late. But, first, I read your article in the last issue of Na Postu; secondly, I have just glanced through the verbatim record of your speech; and, thirdly, it must be said that one can tell beforehand, without listening to you, what you are going to say. (Laughter.)

But to return to Comrade Raskolnikov. He says: they recommend the “fellow-travellers” to us, but did the old, pre-war Pravda or Zvezda print the words of Artsybashev, Leonid Andreyev and others whom now they would certainly call “fellow-travellers”? There is an example of a fresh approach to the question, not spoilt by any reflections. What are Artsybashev and Andreyev doing here? So far as I know, nobody has called them “fellow-travellers”. Leonid Andreyev died in a state of epileptic hatred of Soviet Russia. Artsybashev was not so long ago simply pushed over the frontier. One can’t muddle things up in such a shameless way! What is a “fellow-traveller”? In literature as in politics we call by this name someone who, stumbling and staggering, goes up to a certain point along the same road which we shall follow much further. Whoever goes against us is not a fellow-traveller but an enemy, whom if necessary we will deport, for the well-being of the revolution is our highest law. How can you mix up Leonid Andreyev in this question of “fellow-travellers”? (Raskolnikov: “Well, but what about Pilnyak?”) If you are going to talk about Artsybashev when you mean Pilnyak, there’s no arguing with you. (Laughter. A shout: “But aren’t they the same thing?”) What do you mean: aren’t they the same thing? If you name names, you must stick to them. Pilnyak may be good or bad, in this way or that he may be good or he may be bad – but Pilnyak is Pilnyak, and you must talk about him as Pilnyak, and not as Leonid Andreyev. Knowledge in general begins with distinguishing between things and appearances, and not with chaotic confusion. Raskolnikov says: “We didn’t invite ‘fellow-travellers’ into the pages of Zvezda and Pravda, but sought and found poets and writers in the depths of the proletariat.” Sought and found! In the depths of the proletariat! But what did you do with them? Why have you hidden them from us? (Raskolnikov: “There is, for instance, Demyan Bedny.”) Oh, well now, that I didn’t know, I must confess – that we discovered Demyan Bedny in the depths of the proletariat. (General laughter.)

You see with what methods we are approaching the problem of literature: we speak of Leonid Andreyev, and we mean Pilnyak, we boast that we have found writers and poets in the depths of the proletariat, and then when we call the roll, out of these “depths” there answers only Demyan Bedny. (Laughter.) This won’t do. This is frivolity. Much more seriousness is needed in considering this matter.

Let us try, indeed, to look more seriously at those pre-revolutionary workers’ publications, newspapers and periodicals, which have been mentioned here. We all remember that they used to carry some verses devoted to the struggle, to May Day, and so on. All these verses, such as they were, constituted very important and significant documents in the history of culture. They expressed the revolutionary awakening and political growth of the working class. In this cultural-historical sense their importance was no less than that of the works of all the Shakespeares, Molières and Pushkins in the world. In these feeble verses was the pledge of a new and higher human culture which the awakened masses will create when they have mastered the elements of the old culture. But, all the same, the workers’ verses in Zvezda and Pravda do not at all signify the rise of a new, proletarian literature. Inartistic doggerel in the Derzhavin (or pre-Derzhavin) style cannot be regarded as a new literature, although those thoughts and feelings which sought expression in these verses also belong to a writer who is beginning to appear from the working-class milieu.

It is wrong to suppose that the development of literature is an unbroken chain, in which the naïve, though sincere, doggerel of young workers at the beginning of this century is the first link in the coming “proletarian literature”. In reality, these revolutionary verses were a political event, not a literary one. They contributed not to the growth of literature but to the growth of the revolution. The revolution led to the victory of the proletariat, the victory of the proletariat is leading to the transformation of the economy. The transformation of the economy is in process of changing the cultural state of the working masses. And the cultural growth of the working people will create the real basis for a new art. “But it is impossible to permit duality,” Comrade Raskolnikov tells us. “It is necessary that in our publications political writing and poetry should form one whole; Bolshevism is distinguished by monolithicity,” and so on.

At first sight this reasoning seems irrefutable. Actually, it is an empty abstraction. At best it is a pious but unreal wish for something good. Of course it would be splendid if we had, to supplement our Communist political writing, the Bolshevik world-outlook expressed in artistic form. But we haven’t, and that is not accidental. The heart of the matter is that artistic creativity, by its very nature, lags behind the other modes of expression of a man’s spirit, and still more of the spirit of a class. It is one thing to understand something and express it logically, and quite another thing to assimilate it organically, reconstructing the whole system of one’s feelings, and to find a new kind of artistic expression for this new entity.

The latter process is more organic, slower, more difficult to subject to conscious influence – and in the end it will always lag behind. The political writing of a class hastens ahead on stilts, while its artistic creativity hobbles along behind on crutches. Marx and Engels were great political writers of the proletariat in the period when the class was still not really awakened. (From the meeting: “Yes, you’re right there.”) I am very grateful to you. (Laughter.) But take the trouble to draw the necessary conclusions from this, and understand why there is not this monolithicity between political writing and poetry, and this will in turn help you to understand why in the old legal Marxist periodicals we always found ourselves in a bloc, or semi-bloc, with artistic “fellow-travellers”, sometimes very dubious and even plainly false ones.

You remember, of course, Novoye Slovo, the best of the old legal Marxist periodicals, in which many Marxists of the older generation collaborated including Vladimir Ilyich. This periodical, as everyone knows, was friendly with the Decadents. What was the reason for that? It was because the Decadents were then a young and persecuted tendency in bourgeois literature. And this persecuted situation of theirs impelled them to take sides with our attitude of opposition, though the latter, of course, was quite different in character, in spite of which the Decadents were temporarily fellow-travellers with us. And later Marxist periodicals (and the semi-Marxist ones, it goes without saying), right down to Prosveshcheniye, had no sort of “monolithic” fiction section, but set aside considerable space for the “fellow-travellers”. Some might be either more severe or more indulgent in this respect, but it was impossible to carry on a “monolithic” policy in the field of art, because the artistic elements needed for such a policy were lacking.