Leon Trotsky’s CLASS AND ART

Picketing Gate Gourmet workers last Thursday. The picket has got larger since the workers have rejected the ‘Compromise Agreement’ and are fighting for their jobs back on the old terms and conditions
Picketing Gate Gourmet workers last Thursday. The picket has got larger since the workers have rejected the ‘Compromise Agreement’ and are fighting for their jobs back on the old terms and conditions

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.

“By proletarian literature I understand literature which looks at the world with the eyes of the vanguard,” and so on, and so on. This is the opinion of Comrade Lelevich. Splendid, we are ready to accept his definition. Give us though, not only the definition but, also the literature. Where is it? Show us it! (Lelevich: “Komsomolia – there is the best of recent times.”) What times? (A voice: “The last year.”) Well, all right, the last year. I don’t want to speak polemically. My attitude to Bezymensky has nothing in it that can be called negative, I hope. I praised Komsomolia highly when I read it in manuscript. But regardless of whether we can on this account proclaim the appearance of proletarian literature, I can say that Bezymensky would not exist as an artist if we did not have Mayakovsky, Pasternak and even Pilnyak. (A voice: “That proves nothing.”) This does prove, at least, – that the artistic creativity of a given epoch is a very complex web which is not woven automatically, by discussion groups and seminars, but comes into being through complex interrelations, in the first place with the different fellow-travelling groups. You can’t get away from that; Bezymensky doesn’t try to, and he does well not to. In some of his works, the influence of “fellow-travellers” is even too noticeable. But this is an unavoidable phenomenon of youth and growth. And here we have Comrade Libedinsky, the enemy of “fellow-travellers”, and himself an imitator of Pilnyak and even Byely. Yes, yes, Comrade Averbach must excuse me; I see him shaking his head, though without, much conviction. Libedinsky’s last story, Zavtra (Tomorrow) is like the diagonal of a parallelogram, one side of which is Pilnyak and the other Andrei Byely. In itself that’s no misfortune – Libedinsky can’t be born in the land of Na Postu as a ready-made writer. (Voice: “It’s a very barren land.”) I have already spoken about Libedinsky, after the first appearance of his Nedelya (The Week). Bukharin then, as you will recall, fervently praised it, out of the expansiveness and kindness of his nature, and this praise alarmed me.

Meanwhile I was obliged to observe the extreme dependence of Comrade Libedinsky on those very writers – “fellow-travellers” and semi-fellow-travellers – whom he and his co-thinkers all curse in Na Postu. You see once more that art and political writing are not always monolithic. I have no intention of giving up Comrade Libedinsky as a bad job on that account. I think that it is clear to all of us that our common duty is to show the greatest concern for every young artistic talent ideologically close to us, and all the more when it is a matter of someone who is our brother-in-arms. The first condition of such an attentive and considerate attitude is not to give premature praise, killing the young writer’s self-criticism; the second condition is not to wash one’s hands of the man at once if he stumbles. Comrade Libedinsky is still very young. He needs to learn and to grow. And in this connection it turns out that Pilnyak fulfils a need. (A voice: “For Libedinsky or for us?”) First of all, for Libedinsky. (Libedinsky: “But this means that I’ve been poisoned by Pilnyak.”) Alas, the human organism can be nourished only by taking poison and producing internal resources that combat the poison. That’s life. If you let yourself go dry, like a Caspian roach, that won’t mean you’re poisoned, but you won’t be nourished either; indeed, it will mean nothing at all will happen. (Laughter.)

Comrade Pletnev, speaking here in defence of his abstractions about proletarian culture and its constituent part, proletarian literature, quoted Vladimir Ilyich against me. Now there’s something that’s really to the point! We must give that proper consideration. Not long ago an entire booklet appeared, written by Pletnev, Tretiakov and Sizov, in which proletarian literature was defended by means of quotations from Lenin against Trotsky. This method is very fashionable nowadays. Vardin could write a whole thesis on the subject. But the fact is, Comrade Pletnev, that you know very well how matters stood, because you yourself appealed to me to save you from the thunders of Vladimir Ilyich, who was going, you thought, on account of this very “proletarian culture” of yours, to close down Proletkult altogether. And I promised you that I would defend the continued existence of Proletkult, on certain grounds, but that as regards Bogdanov’s abstractions about proletarian culture I was entirely opposed to you and your protector Bukharin, and entirely in agreement with Vladimir Ilyich.

Comrade Vardin, who speaks here as nothing less than the living embodiment of Party tradition, does not shrink from trampling in the crudest way on what Lenin wrote about proletarian culture. As we know, there is plenty of empty piety around: people “firmly agree” with Lenin and then preach the absolute opposite to his views. In terms that leave room for no other interpretation, Lenin mercilessly condemned “chatter about proletarian culture”. However, there is nothing simpler than getting away from this evidence: why, of course, Lenin condemned chatter about proletarian culture, but, don’t you see, it was only chatter that he condemned, and we are not chattering but seriously getting down to work, and even standing with our arms akimbo. They only forget that Lenin’s sharp condemnation was aimed precisely at those who are now referring to him. Empty piety, I repeat, is available in plenty: refer to Lenin and do the contrary.

The comrades who have spoken here under the sign of proletarian culture approach different ideas according to the attitude of the authors of those ideas to their Proletkult groups. I have tested this and found it true as regards my own fate. My book on literature, which caused so much alarm among certain comrades, appeared originally, as some of you may perhaps recall, in the form of articles in Pravda. I wrote this book over a period of two years, during two summer breaks. This circumstance, as we see today, is of importance in relation to the question that interests us. When it appeared, in the form of newspaper articles, the first part of the book, dealing with “non-October” literature, with the “fellow-travellers”, with the “peasant-singers”, and exposing the limitedness and contradictions of the ideological-artistic position of the fellow-travellers, the Na Postu comrades hailed me with enthusiasm – everywhere you cared to look you found quotations from my articles on the fellow-travellers. At one stage I was quite depressed by it. (Laughter.) My estimation of the “fellow-travellers”, I repeat, was regarded as practically faultless; even Vardin made no objections to it. (Vardin: “And I don’t object to it now.”) That is just what I say. But why then do you now obliquely and insinuatingly argue against me about the “fellow-travellers”? What is going on here? At first sight it’s quite incomprehensible. But the solution is a simple one: my crime is not that I incorrectly defined the social nature of the fellow-travellers or their artistic significance – no, Comrade Vardin even now, as we heard, “does not object” to that – my crime is that I did not bow before the manifestos of Oktyabr or Kuznitsa, that I did not acknowledge these groups as the monopolist representatives of the artistic interests of the proletariat – in short, that I did not identify the cultural-historical interests and tasks of the class with the intentions, plans and pretensions of certain literary groups. That was where I went wrong. And when this became clear, then there arose the howl, unexpected by its belatedness: Trotsky is on the side of the petty-bourgeois “fellow-travellers”! Am I for the “fellow-travellers”, or against them? In what sense am I against them? You knew that nearly two years ago, from my articles on the “fellow-travellers”. But then you agreed, you praised, you quoted, you gave your approval. And when, a year later, it turned out that my criticism of the “fellow-travellers” was not at all just an approach to the glorification of some amateurish literary group or other, then the writers and defenders of this group, or rather of these groups, began to bring forward philosophical arguments against my allegedly incorrect attitude to the “fellow-travellers”. Oh, strategists! My offence was not that I estimated incorrectly Pilnyak or Mayakovsky – the Na Postu group added nothing to what I had said, but merely repeated it in vulgarized form – my offence was that I knocked their own literary factory! In the whole of their peevish criticism there is not the shadow of a class approach. What we find is the attitude of one literary group engaged in competition with others, and that’s all.

I mentioned the “peasant-singers”, and we have heard here that the Na Postu group especially approved of that chapter. It’s not enough to approve, you should understand. What is the point here regarding the “peasant-singing” fellow-travellers? It is that this is a phenomenon which is not accidental, is not of minor importance and is not ephemeral. In our country, please don’t forget, we have the dictatorship of the proletariat in a country which is inhabited mainly by peasants. The intelligentsia is placed between these two classes as between two millstones, is ground up little by little and arises anew, and cannot be ground up completely, that is, it will remain as an “intelligentsia” for a long time yet, until the full development of socialism and a very considerable rise in the cultural level of the entire population of the country. The intelligentsia serves the workers’ and peasants’ state and sub-ordinates itself to the proletariat, partly from fear, partly from conviction; it wavers and will continue to waver in accordance with the course of events, and it will seek ideological support for its waverings in the peasantry – this is the source of the Soviet literature of the “peasant-singers”. What are the prospects of this school? Is it basically hostile to us? Does its path lead towards us or away from us? And this depends on the general course of events.

The task of the proletariat consists in retaining all-round hegemony over the peasantry and leading it to socialism. If we were to suffer a setback on this road, that is, if there were to be a break between the proletariat and the peasantry, then the “peasant-singing” intelligentsia, or, more correctly, 99 per cent of the entire intelligentsia, would turn against the proletariat. But this eventuality is not at all inevitable. We are, on the contrary, following a course aimed at bringing the peasantry, under the leadership of the proletariat, to socialism. This is a very, very long road. In the course of this process both the proletariat and the peasantry will bring forward their own intelligentsia. It need not be supposed that the intelligentsia arising from the proletariat will be a 100 per cent proletarian intelligentsia. The very fact that the proletariat is obliged to promote from its ranks a special stratum of “cultural workers” inevitably means a more or less considerable cultural disconnection between the remainder of the class as a whole and the proletarians promoted from it. This applies even more in the case of the peasant intelligentsia. The peasants’ road to socialism is not at all the same as the proletariat’s. And in so far as the intelligentsia, even an arch-Soviet intelligentsia, is unable to merge its road with the road of the proletarian vanguard, to that degree it tries to find a political, ideological, artistic support for itself in the peasant, whether real or imagined. This appears all the more in the sphere of fiction, where we have an old Populist tradition. Is this for us or against us? I repeat: the answer entirely depends on the entire future course of development. If we draw the peasant, towed by the proletariat, to socialism – and we confidently believe that we shall draw him – then the creative work of the “peasant-singers” will evolve by complex and tortuous paths into the socialist art of the future. This complexity of the problems involved, and at the same time their reality and concreteness, is completely beyond the understanding of the Na Postu group, and not only of them. This is their fundamental mistake. Talking about the “fellow-travellers” regardless of this social basis and prospect means simply wagging one’s tongue.