Trotsky On Political Poetry

From Literature And Revolution, an excert from Chapter 6: Proletarian Culture And Proletarian Art.
The book was originally published by the Soviet Government in 1924 and the essays by Trotsky therein constitute a significant contribution to then ongoing debate in the USSR over culture and art in a Workers State. It foreshadowed a later debate over the Stalinist conception of “Socialist Realism” in the later part of the decade. This book was suppressed by the bureaucracy after Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1928.


…it would be extremely light-minded to give the name of proletarian culture, even to the most valuable achievements of individual representatives of the working-class. One cannot turn the concept of culture into the small change of individual daily living and determine the success of a class culture by the proletarian passports of individual inventors or poets. Culture is the organic sum of knowledge and capacity which characterizes the entire society, or at least its ruling class. It embraces and penetrates all fields of human work and unifies them into a system. Individual achievements rise above this level and elevate it gradually.

Does such an organic inter-relation exist between our present-day proletarian poetry and the cultural work of the working-class in its entirety? It is quite evident that it dees not. Individual workers or groups of workers are developing contacts with the art which was created by the bourgeois intelligentsia and are making use of its technique, for the time being, in quite an eclectic manner. But is it for the purpose of giving expression to their own internal proletarian world? The fact is that it is far from being so. The work of the proletarian poets lacks an organic quality, which is produced only by a profound interaction between art and the development of culture in general. We have the literary works of talented and gifted proletarians, but that is not proletarian literature. However, they may prove to be some of its springs.

It is possible that in the work of the present generation many germs and roots and springs will be revealed to which some future descendant will trace the various sectors of the culture of the future, just as our present-day historians of art trace the theater of Ibsen to the church mystery, or Impressionism and Cubism to the paintings of the monks. In the economy of art, as in the economy of nature, nothing is lost, and everything is connected in the large. But factually, concretely, vitally, the present-day work of the poets who have sprung from the proletariat is not developing at all in accordance with the plan which is behind the process of preparing the conditions of the future Socialist culture, that is, the process of elevating the masses.

The proletarian poets were greatly pained and aroused against Dubovskoy because of an article in which he expressed – side by side with ideas which seem to be doubtful – a series of truths which are a little bitter, but fundamentally indisputable. Dubovskoy’s conclusion is that proletarian poetry does not lie in the Kuznitsa group, but in the local factory newspapers, written by anonymous authors. The thought here is true though it is expressed paradoxically. One might with as much reason say that the proletarian Shakespeares and Goethes are running about barefoot somewhere today in the elementary schools. Undoubtedly the work of the factory poets is much more organic, in the sense of its being connected with the life, environment and interests of the working masses. Nonetheless, it is not proletarian literature, but it expresses in writing the molecular process of the cultural rise of the proletariat. We have already explained above that this is not one and the same thing. The letters of the workers, the local poets, the complainants, are carrying on a great cultural work, breaking up the ground and preparing it for future sowing. But a cultural and artistic harvest of full value will be – happily! – Socialist and not “proletarian”.

Pletnev, in an interesting article on the methods of proletarian poetry, expresses the thought that the works of the proletarian poets, apart from their artistic value, are significant because of their direct contact with the life of a class. By giving examples of proletarian poetry Pletnev shows convincingly the changes in the moods of the worker poets and their relation to the general development of the life and struggles of the proletariat. Pletnev proves irrefutably by this that the products of proletarian poetry – not all, but many – are significant cultural and historical documents. But this does not at all mean that they are artistic documents. “Let us suppose, if you please, that these poems are weak, old in form, illiterate,” says Pletnev, in characterizing one of the worker poets who rose from a prayerful mood to a militant revolutionary one – “but do they not mark just the same the growth of the proletarian poet?” Undoubtedly; the weak, the colorless and even the illiterate poems may reflect the path of the political growth of a poet and of a class and may have an immeasurable significance as a symptom of culture. But weak and, what is more, illiterate poems do not make up proletarian poetry, because they do not make up poetry at all. It is extremely interesting that, while tracing the political evolution of the worker poets which went hand in hand with the revolutionary growth of the class, Pletnev justly points out that among the proletarian writers there has been a breaking away from their class during the latter years, especially since the beginning of the New Economic Policy. Pletnev explains “the crisis of proletarian poetry” and the simultaneous trend towards Formalism and towards Philistinism by the neglect of the poets by the Party. From this it has resulted that the poets “have not resisted the colossal pressure of bourgeois ideology and have given way, or are giving way”. The explanation is clearly insufficient. What kind of colossal pressure of bourgeois ideology exists among us? One should not exaggerate. Let us not quarrel about whether the Party could have done more for proletarian poetry than it has done. But this alone no more covers the question of why this poetry lacks the power of resistance than does the violent “class” gesture (in the manner of the manifesto of “Kuznitsa”) compensate it for its insufficient power of resistance. The fact is that in the pre.revolutionary period, and during the first period of the Revolution, the proletarian poets regarded versification not as an art which had its own laws, but as one of the means of complaining of one’s sad fate, or of expressing one’s revolutionary mood. The proletarian poets approached poetry as an art and as a craft only during these latter years, after the tension of the civil war was relaxed. Then it became clear that the proletariat had not yet created a cultural background in art, but that the bourgeois intelligentsia had such a background for better or for worse. It is not the fact that the Party or its leaders did “not help sufficiently”, but that the masses were not artistically prepared; and art, just as science, demands preparation. Our proletariat has its political culture, within limits sufficient for securing its dictatorship, but it has no artistic culture. While the proletarian poets marched in the general ranks of the military, their poems, as was said above, retained the importance of revolutionary documents. But when these poets were faced with the problems of craftsmanship and art, they began to seek for themselves willy-nilly a new environment. It is, therefore, not a matter of their being neglected – the cause lies in a deeper historic condition. However, this does not mean that the worker poets who are passing through a crisis have been lost entirely for the proletariat. Let us hope that some, at least, will come out stronger from this crisis. Still, it doesn’t look as if the present groups of worker poets are destined to lay immutable foundations for a new great poetry. Most likely this will be the privilege of distant generations, which, too, will have to pass through crises. For there will be plenty of ideologic and cultural deviations, waverings and errors for a long time to come, the cause of which will lie in the cultural immaturity of the working-class.

The study of literary technique alone is a necessary stage and it is not a brief one. Technique is noticed most markedly in the case of those who have not mastered it. One can say with full justice about many of the young proletarian writers that it is not they who are the masters of technique, but that the technique is their master. For the more talented, this is merely a disease of growth. But they who refuse to master technique will come to look “unnatural”, imitative, and even buffoon-like. It would be monstrous to conclude from this that the technique of bourgeols art is not necessary to the workers. Yet there are many who fall into this error. “Give us,” they say, “something even pock-marked, but our own.” This is false and untrue. A pock-marked art is no art and is therefore not necessary to the working masses. Those who believe in a “pock-marked” art are imbued to a considerable extent with contempt for the masses and are like the breed of politicians who have no faith in class power but who flatter and praise the class when “all is well”. On the heels of the demagogues come the sincere fools who have taken up this simple formula of a pseudo-proletarian art. This is not Marxism, but reactionary populism, falsified a little to suit a “proletarian” ideology. Proletarian art should not be second-rate art. One has to learn regardless of the fact that learning carries within itself certain dangers because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies. One has to learn and the importance of such organizations as the Proletkult [the Organization for Proletarian Culture] cannot be measured by the rapidity with which they create a new literature, but by the extent to which they help elevate the literary level of the working-class, beginning with its upper strata.

Such terms as “proletarian literature” and “proletarian culture” are dangerous, because they erroneously compress the Culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day. They falsify perspectives, they violate proportions, they distort standards and they cultivate the arrogance of small circles which is most dangerous.

But if we are to reject the term “proletarian culture”, what shall we do with the Proletkult? Let us agree, then, that the Proletkult means to work for proletarian culture, that is, to struggle obstinately to raise the cultural level of the working-class. In truth, such an interpretation will not diminish the importance of the Proletkult by one iota.

In their manifesto already mentioned, the proletarian writers of Kuznitsa declare that “style is class”, and that therefore the writers who are outsiders socially are unable to create a style of art which would correspond to the nature of the proletariat. It would follow from this that the Kuznitsa group is proletarian both in its composition and in its tendency and that it is creating a proletarian art.

“Style is class.” However, style is not born with a class at all. A class finds its style in extremely complex ways. It would be very simple if a writer, just because he was a proletarian, loyal to his class, could stand at the crossing of the roads and announce: “I am the style of the proletariat!” “Style is class” – not alone in art, but above all in politics. Politics is the only field in which the proletariat has really created its own style. But how? Not at all by means of a simple syllogism: each class has its own style; the proletariat is a class; it assigns to such and such a proletarian group the task of formulating its political style. No! The road is far more complex. The elaboration of proletarian politics went through economic strikes, through a struggle for the right to organize, through the Utopian schools of the English and the French, through the workers’ participation in revolutionary struggles under the leadership of bourgeois democrats, through the Communist Manifesto, through the establishment of the Socialist Party which, however, subordinated itself to the “style” of other classes, through the split among the Socialists and the organization of the Communists, through the struggle of the Communists for a united front, and it will go through a whole series of other stages which are still ahead of us. All the energy of the proletariat which remains at its disposal after meeting the elementary demands of life, has gone and is going towards the elaboration of this political “style” while, on the contrary, the historic rise of the bourgeoisie took place with a comparative evenness in all fields of social life. That is, the bourgeoisie grew rich, organized itself, shaped itself philosophically and aesthetically and accumulated habits of government. On the other hand, the whole process of self-determination of the proletariat, a class unfortunate economically, assumes an intensely one-sided, revolutionary and political character and reaches its highest expression in the Communist Party.

If we were to compare the rise in art with the rise in politics, we would have to say that here at the present time we find ourselves approximately in the same stage as when the first faint movements of the masses coincided with the efforts of the intelligentsia and of a few workers to construct Utopian systems. We heartily hope that the poets of Kuznitsa will contribute to the art of the future, if not to a proletarian, at least to a Socialist art. But to recognize the monopoly of Kuznitsa to express “proletarian style” at the present super-primitive stage of the process would be an unpardonable error. The activity of Kuznitsa in relation to the proletariat is carried on the same plane as that of “Lef” and “Krug” and the other groups which try to find an artistic expression for the Revolution, and, in all honesty, we do not know which one of these contributions will prove to be the biggest.

For instance, many proletarian poets have an undoubted trace of Futurist influence. The talented Kazin has imbibed the elements of Futurist technique. Bezimensky is unthinkable without Mayakovsky, and Bezimensky is a hope.

Kuznitsa’s manifesto pictures the present situation in art as extremely dark and makes the following indictment: “the NEP-stage of the Revolution found itself surrounded by an art which resembles the grimaces of a gorilla.” “Money is assigned for everything … We have no Belinskys. Twilight hangs over the desert of art. We raise our voices and we lift the Red Flag …” etc., etc. They speak with great eloquence and even pompously of proletarian art sometimes as an art of the future and sometimes as an art of the present. “The monolith of class creates art in its own image only and in its own likeness. Its peculiar language, polyphonous, multi-colored and multi-imaged … promotes the might of a great style by its simplicity, clarity and precision.” But if all this is true, why is there a desert of art and why the twilight over the desert? This evident contradiction can only be understood in the sense that the authors of this manifesto contrast the art which is protected by the Soviet Government and which is a desert covered by twilight with the proletarian art of big canvases and great style, which, however, is not getting the necessary recognition because there are no “Belinskys” and because the place of the Belinskys is taken by “a few comrades, publicists from our ranks, who were accustomed to draw cart-shafts”. At the risk of being included among the cart-shaft order, I must say, however, that the manifesto of Kuznitsa is not penetrated with the spirit of class Messianism, but with the spirit of an arrogant small circle. Kuznitsa speaks of itself as the exclusive carrier of revolutionary art in the same terms as do the Futurists, Imagists, “Serapion Fraternity” and the others. Where is that “art of the big canvas, of the large style, that monumental art”? Where, oh, where is it? No matter how one may value the works of individual poets who are of proletarian origin – and they need careful and strictly individualized criticism – there is, nevertheless, no proletarian art. One must not play with big words. It is not true that a proletarian style exists and that it is a big and monumental one at that. Where is it? And in what? And why? The proletarian poets are going through an apprenticeship, and the influence of other schools, principally the Futurist, can be found without using, so to speak, the microscopic methods of the Formalist school. This is not said as a reproach, for it is no sin. But nionumental proletarian styles cannot be created by means of manifestos.

Our authors complain that there are no “Belinskys”. If we were in need of juridical proof that the work of Kuznitsa is imbued with the moods of the isolated little world of the intelligentsia or of a little circle or school, we should find the material evidence for this in this phrase in minor key: “There are no Belinskys.” Of course Belinsky is referred to here not as a person, but as the representative of a dynasty of Russian social critics, the inspirers and directors of the old literature. But our friends of Kuznitsa do not seem to understand that this dynasty ceased to exist when the proletarian masses appeared on the political arena. In a way, and in a very essential way, Plekhanov was the Marxist Belinsky, the last representative of this noble dynasty of publicists. The historic role of the Belinskys was to open up a breathing hole into social life by means of literature. Literary criticism took the place of politics and was a preparation for it. But that which was merely a hint for Belinsky and for the later representatives of radical publicism, has taken on in our day the flesh and blood of October and has become Soviet reality. If Belinsky, Tchernischevsky, Dobrolubov, Pisarev, Mikhailovsky, Plekhanov, were each in his own way the inspirers of social literature, or, what is more, the literary inspirers of an incipient social life, then does not our whole social life at the present time with its politics, its press, its meetings, its institutions, appear as the sufficient interpreter of its own ways? We have placed our entire social life under a projector, the light of Marxism illumines all the stages of our struggle and every institution is critically sounded from all sides. To sigh for the Belinskys under such a condition, is to reveal – alas I – the isolation of an intelligentsia group, entirely in the style (far from monumental) of the most pious populists of the left – the Ivanov Razumniks. “There are no Belinskys.” But Belinsky was not a literary critic; he was a socially-minded leader of his epoch. And if Vissarion Belinsky could be transported alive into our times, he probably would be – let us not conceal this from the Kuznitsa – a member of the Politbureau. And, furious, he would most likely start drawing a cart-shaft. Did he not complain that he whose nature was to howl like a jackal, had to emit melodious notes?


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