Culture and Revolution: Trotsky’s Debates on the Transition to Socialism

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During the 1920s, when the Russian Revolution was struggling with new problems — international isolation, the introduction of the NEP, and the open political struggles within the party after Lenin’s death. In the public debate about how to reckon with these problems, Trotsky intervened through various writings on the cultural problems of the transition. This article addresses one of these interventions, focusing on Trotsky’s writings in Literature and Revolution (1924)

Photomontage: Mar Ned based on sketches by El Lissitsky

When the Russian Revolution still lay ahead, Trotsky adopted the pseudonym the Pen to sign many of his writings; throughout a life of crusading historical events — leading a revolution, but also enduring several imprisonments and exiles — he managed to honor that name choice, not only because of his literary talent but also because of the importance he gave to discussions about literature and culture in general, whenever he could.

For Trotsky, cultural problems were neither alien nor secondary in the dynamics of revolutions. After all, they would be present in what would later be his formulation of the theory of permanent revolution: one of his “laws” indicated that, even after coming to power, “revolutions in economy, technique, science, the family, morals and everyday life develop in complex reciprocal action and do not allow society to achieve equilibrium.”1

Some of the cultural conflicts in the Soviet Union during the transition period (religion, family, education, etc.) were addressed by Trotsky and are collected in Problems of Daily Life. This article is devoted to the “literary” chapter of this debate,2 as presented in Literature and Revolution (1924). In it, Trotsky did not shy away from confronting the different artistic currents with critiques and demands from an aesthetic perspective while integrating his own conceptions of art into some of his theoretical polemics. But what he proposed was to problematize the relationship these trends established with the radical novelty of a workers’ revolution.3

One thing that must be accounted for is that, by then, the so-called “scissors crisis” between the city and the countryside and the development of the New Economic Policy (NEP)4 had created tension in the worker-peasant alliance that had supported the revolution; there were also tensions in the Bolshevik Party over what the orientation should be after the defeat of the German revolution, as well as after Lenin’s death. That is why Trotsky’s book can also be considered an intervention in the political debates — through less traveled terrain — in which differences can already be seen regarding the dynamics of the revolution and the challenges presented by the transition during a period when two alternative ideas were beginning to emerge in a conflict that would soon come to a head: that it was possible to build “socialism in one country,” which Stalin would soon formulate using those very words, and what would end up shaping the “theory of permanent revolution,” which Trotsky would develop more thoroughly in the following years.

The Debate over Proletarian Culture

Despite the civil war and the scarcity of resources, the revolution during its early years had turned the young Soviet republic into a laboratory for artistic and cultural experimentation. There was a proliferation of manifestos and groupings reflecting countless trends, genres, and styles, from the most experimental to the most folkloric, and in different languages and traditions. With the disappearance of the old institutions, everything seemed possible: peasant art or futuristic urban art, the rescue of old popular traditions or avant-garde innovations, art brought into the factories, and lifelong production of utilitarian art.

By the 1920s, to the extent that the NEP had reestablished the circulation of some cultural goods, thereby renewing cultural production, the party began discussing the opportunity to encourage a “proletarian culture.” The discussion took place not so much because various artists were grouped together in the institutions of the Proletkult as an organization, but because various definitions of “proletarian cultural” were being given “in the name of Marxism.” The debate had been raised in the party press as early as 1922, and it responded to concerns over the extent to which the restoration of certain market laws, with the NEP, could be accompanied by the restoration of a bourgeois ideology (which the defenders of proletarian culture saw as embodied, intellectually, in the influence gained by nonproletarian artists who had joined the revolution late).5 There had already been a discussion in 1920 about the organization of the Proletkult and its relationship with the Commissariat of Education after a series of speeches by Lenin.6

Theoretically, however, the idea of “proletarian culture” came from further back. It was originally put forward by Alexander Bogdanov — a militant physician and intellectual from the Bolshevik faction of Russian social democracy, though estranged from the party in 1917. Assessing the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Bogdanov held that the proletariat had failed to give itself the tools to win over, from its own perspective, the whole of the oppressed masses. Bogdanov devoted a good part of his efforts to developing a “worldview” with a “proletarian” perspective.

As a foundation, Bogdanov drew a parallel between the workers’ revolution and the bourgeois revolution: the advantage of the latter was to have deployed, before the seizure of power, its own worldview in all fields — political, economic, aesthetic, technological, and so on — in what we know as the “Enlightenment.” Bogdanov thought the working class needed something similar, to forge and shape its vision of the world into a “proletarian culture.” 7 He was so convinced of this need that he had opposed the October takeover as premature because the masses lacked this perspective, even though he would later collaborate with the new state mainly through his role as leader of the Proletkult together with Bolshevik Party members who supported those views.8

This was the case with Valerian Pletnev — a Bolshevik militant, playwright, and chairman of the Proletkult — for whom it was the task of the Proletkult to defend this central axis in the construction of socialism. So, too, with Pavel Lebedev-Polyanski — a literary critic and also a leader of the Proletkult — for whom the dictatorship of the proletariat, as such, did not yet exist insofar as the Bolsheviks had yet to agree on how to incorporate other forces (such as the left-wing Social Revolutionaries) into their program. Such alliances might be necessary in the political arena, but other class sectors could not be trusted to build a new proletarian culture, he warned, because petty-bourgeois influences would eventually prevail.9

What would this proletarian culture look like? In a 1920 text, Bogdanov wrote: “The methods of proletarian creation are founded on the methods of proletarian labor, i.e., the type of work that is characteristic for the workers in modern heavy industry.”10 From this, the characteristics of the proletariat are collectivism — produced by “mass collaboration and on the association between specialized types of labor within mechanical production” — and monism, which in science and philosophy would have embodied the method of Marxism, on the basis of which a “universal organizational science should be developed, uniting monistically the whole of man’s organizational experience in his social labor and struggle.” Bogdanov called this “tectology.”

The mechanistic problem implied by this direct relationship established between economic and cultural development is obvious. But it should also be pointed out that the “collective spirit” of the working class is not opposed, in Marxism, to the development of individuality, but should enrich it. But that is not exactly what happens in work on the factory line. It could be argued that, under workers’ control, factory work may no longer be oppressive in the way it was under the whip of the bourgeoisie, but it would still be mass work, which requires it precisely to be “impersonal.”

Trotsky’s definitions of art in Literature and Revolution are strongly counterposed to those of other Bolshevik leaders. Trotsky departs from romantic views that consider art capable of shaping reality, but also from mechanistic versions. Neither the “hammer” that molds it nor the “mirror” that reflects it, art as a form of appropriation of reality is the result of the interaction between the artist’s subjectivity, with all it has that is social and individual, with the objectivity of its materials. It therefore has its own rules: artists works from their subjectivity, a particular combination in which they have processed their conditions organically, in their “nerves,” in their sensitivity; this is why art does not bear well with directives that attempt to indicate which “strips” to “plow” 11 Thus, if it is true that historical materialism is a tool that allows us to account for the emergence of certain schools at certain historical moments, at the same time it recognizes that its methods are not those of art; for this reason, it does not have to take a position on forms of versification or the editing of a film. In short, Marxism prescribes no aesthetic.

But what is of special interest here is another problem, related to the dynamics of the workers’ revolution: the analogy between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution leaves out that the working class comes to power not as a possessing class but as a dispossessed class. Therefore, it is only after the seizure of power that it can begin to roll out elements or perspectives that identify it as a class, and consolidate its hegemony over the other oppressed classes. Further, the working class does not seek to perpetuate itself in power but, on the contrary, to dissolve the state and class divisions.

For Trotsky, it is indisputable that the proletariat will leave its mark on culture. The poems of workers that relate their struggles, for example, can be considered a cultural fact no less than Shakespeare’s works, since they point to the revolutionary awakening and the strengthening of the class. But if culture is understood as “a developed and completely harmonious system of knowledge and of art in all material and spiritual fields of work,” there is some distance between these elements and the definition of a new culture. The dynamism of the epoch, Trotsky would write, is concentrated in politics; in the “years of respite, some illusions may arise in our Soviet Republic,” but the USSR itself was still “entirely dominated by the approach of European and world revolution. We are, as before, merely soldiers in a campaign.” 12

Trotsky insists on his criticism of the “laboratory methods” — even more so in the proletarian state, which is based on the creative initiative of the masses. “It is impossible to create a class culture behind the backs of a class.” But this implies that the classes themselves would begin to dissolve, giving way to a socialist culture. It is to this culture that Trotsky would dedicate the last chapter of his book, outlining hypotheses about artistic production that would no longer be restricted to a small sector of society, in a polemic against those who, like Nietzsche, had predicted that without social tensions art would lose substance. Instead, Trotsky spoke of a socialist society with new “parties”13 — aesthetic, scientific, philosophical — and of an art not separated from life.

The 1924 Debate

In 1924, the discussion on “proletarian culture” was renewed in the context of the debate on where the Soviet Union was headed. A meeting was held that year in which Bolshevik leaders discussed the party’s policy in the field of literary production. In attendance were Lunacharsky, Bukharin, Averbakh, Raskolnikov, Radek, Riazanov, Pletnev, and Trotsky, among others. The internal discussion unfolding in the party was already becoming apparent, as can be seen in Trotsky’s intervention, which denounced the method of compiling Lenin’s quotes to attack him and defending everything contrary to what Lenin had actually put forward.

While many Bolshevik leaders, such as Lunacharsky and Bukharin, had had their own disputes with the more radical proletarians (and did not share with them the insistence on establishing a kind of “official aesthetic”), they generally advocated the need to build a “proletarian culture” for the transitional period. Trotsky there renewed the arguments set out in Literature and Revolution. He insisted against mechanically defining the relationship between art and society (as if “the artistic significance of Dante” was “as though it were made of the cloth that Florentine merchants provided for their customers”14) and that there was no reason to ask Marxism to provide answers regarding every artistic — and scientific, he added — problem. But, above all, he would attack the demagogy distilled by the defenders of “proletarian culture” and what he considered a new variety of populism.

Regarding the break with tradition, Trotsky said that knowledge, criticism, and overcoming the previous artistic tradition requires a series of tools that may be possessed by the Proletkult leaders, but not yet by the working masses. Demagogy could then quickly turn into condescension and a lack of genuine democracy. And against the pretense of evaluating art according to whether the masses could comprehend it, Trotsky asked whether Marx’s Capital should be less scientific, since reading it undoubtedly involves some hard work. Using as a yardstick the “taste” of the masses implies not questioning the dominant ideology that will undoubtedly continue for some period, even when it is most weakened. Anyone who believes the class will be free of conservatism, prejudice, or backwardness is not looking at reality head on and not thinking of how to change it at the roots.

Culture in the transition period is another precise axis. Lunacharsky defined in his memoirs the differences he had with Trotsky:

We had an argument about whether proletarian culture is possible. Trotsky’s opinion was that it was not possible, because while the proletariat still has not won it has to master an alien culture and will not create its own; but when it wins there will be no class culture, not a proletarian culture, but a common human culture. I denied that, and deny it now. Are our Soviet state, our unions, our Marxism really a common human culture? No, this is a purely proletarian culture; our science, our unification, our political structure have their own theory and practice. Why say that art is different? How do we know how seriously and how long NEP will last? … Separate cultures sometimes develop for hundreds of years, and perhaps our culture will occupy not decades but only years, but it is impossible to repudiate it altogether.15 

Bukharin, who did not share Lunacharsky’s positions at all, made a similar criticism. He “asserted that Trotsky had made a ‘theoretical mistake’ in exaggerating the ‘rate of development of communist society, or expressed differently … the speed of the withering away of the proletarian dictatorship.’”16

Trotsky insisted that, from the point of view of socialist revolution, the objective is not to reinforce the domination of a certain class, even the oppressed and majority class, but to dissolve classes. No matter how long that transition takes — because of the steps forward and backward along its path, and above all because of the international conditions — the workers’ state does not aspire to, and cannot, “consolidate” itself as the bourgeois state without betraying its objectives (as embodied in the odd idea of building “socialism in one country,” which by its very definition indicated that something was very wrong with the workers’ state, as would become clear shortly thereafter).

In 1925, a new resolution on the party’s artistic work was published — still a compromise between the various positions. Trotsky’s arguments had had an impact, although it could be said that he was in the minority on these issues among the Bolshevik leadership and among artistic groupings that had their own agenda in the NEP discussions.17 But 1925 was not just any year: while Stalin was already openly trumpeting the idea of “socialism in one country,” Trotsky had been ousted from the leadership of the Communist Party.

The resolution pointed out that the proletariat, as a hitherto dispossessed class, did not have to have answers for all questions relating to artistic problems, and therefore could not claim to deride previous traditions or establish a single “proletarian” style. It denounced the “Communist arrogance” that, with an imperative tone, sought to impose itself on the other schools — toward which the communists should have an attitude of “tolerance” — and wrongly transferred workers’ hegemony in the political field to the cultural one. It pointed out that the proletariat could not afford to throw away artistic traditions. The resolution did not, however, deny the need to build a proletarian culture, but characterized it as something that was yet to be won. Thus, while the resolution was seen as a defeat for the promoters of “proletarian culture,” it was far from responding to Trotsky’s questioning precisely with respect to the transitional period.

From Cultural Fermentation to Socialist Realism

It took a 1932 resolution of the Russian Communist Party18 to settle, in Stalinist fashion, the discussions of the previous decade. There, under the “confirmation” of the “successes of socialist construction,” existing cultural organizations were dissolved and a single new organization was established, the Writers’ Union (indicating that this would be reproduced in the other artistic fields) — in other words, it was the opposite of what, beyond the polemics, had been the policy of the Commissariat and the workers’ state until then. That rationale made clear that the tasks of organizing a “proletarian culture” would now run the risk of becoming circles isolated “from the contemporary political duties” of socialist construction.19

In the 1930s, the policy of “socialist realism” was developed and imposed on all the Communist Parties in the various countries, and it was in this period that many artists and intellectuals identified with the revolution began to look to Trotsky as an alternative. They did so in many cases precisely because they had become aware of the arguments he had put forward in the previous decade.20

In 1936, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky sought to systematize the objective and subjective processes that led to the establishment of Stalinism. A section of the book is devoted to the cultural panorama, where it summarizes the effects of “socialism in one country”:

While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. … In the process of struggle against the party Opposition, the literary schools were strangled one after the other. It was not only a question of literature, either. The process of extermination took place in all ideological spheres, and it took place more decisively since it was more than half unconscious. … The bureaucracy superstitiously fears whatever does not serve it directly, as well as whatever it does not understand. 21 

Trotsky’s analysis in the book disputes explanations of the Soviet Union’s bureaucratization that portray it as an objective and therefore inevitable phenomenon, or that the bureaucratization process involved only Stalin’s maneuvers and the “counter-maneuvers” that might have counteracted it. There is something of the latter in many of the readings of the cultural debates of the 1920s, debates in which the arguments are told in terms of how those on one side of the party or the other lined up, and in terms of the support they won or the fissures they provoked, rather than with the arguments themselves. This not only oversimplifies positions (even defenders of the Proletkult such as Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, and Bukharin did not have the same positions in the internal debate), but also tends to reduce revolutionary politics to internal maneuvers or personalities, without explaining the deep causes behind the bureaucracy’s taking root in the Soviet Union, and in this particular case, the real and deep cultural problems faced by the Russian Revolution.

But the harsh panorama of the Soviet Union posed in the book, in every area, was not an argument for skepticism, but quite the opposite. Trotsky’s aim was to lay the theoretical foundations of a revolutionary alternative to that drift. It is that political struggle that was embodied first in the Left Opposition and then in the Fourth International, founded in 1938.

First published in Spanish on June 21 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translated by Scott Cooper

Notes   [ + ]

1. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, introduction to the first (Russian) edition(1930).
2. The two problems, though, are connected, and not only by the political context. Byt (Russian for “everyday life”), its daily onslaughts and regular occurrences, became a topic of in the literary and theoretical work of many writers of the time. See, for example, Ariane Díaz, “El asombro cotidiano: Literatura y revolucíon rusa” (The everyday wonder: Russian literature and revolution), Ideas de Izquierda, November 2014.
3. Ariane Díaz, “La literatura como termómetro de una época” (Literature as a thermometer of an epoch), Ideas de Izquierda, no. 22, August 13, 2015.
4. Translator’s note: The “Scissors Crisis” is a name given to the widening gap (“price scissors”) between industrial and agricultural prices, which caused the income of peasants to fall and made it increasingly difficult for them to purchase manufactured goods. In response, peasants switched to subsistence farming rather than selling their produce, which created fears that there would be a famine in the cities.
5. This is recounted in John Biggart, “Bukharin and the Origins of the ‘Proletarian Culture’ Debate,” Soviet Studies 39, no. 2 (1987): 229–46.
6. On that topic, see Ariane Díaz, “Laboratorio artístico a cielo abierto” (Open-air art laboratory), El Reportorio, November 10, 2017.
7. For more on Bogdanov’s views, see Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); see also James White, Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).
8. Bogdanov broke with the Proletkult in 1920 and renewed his relationship with the Soviet Communist Party.
9. Zenovia Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 141.
10. The Paths of Proletarian Creation,” in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1902–1934, ed. John E. Bowlt (New York: Viking Press, 1976), 179–80.
11. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, chap. 5, “The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism” (1924).
12. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, chap. 6, “Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art.”
13. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, chap. 8, “Revolutionary and Socialist Art.”
14. Leon Trotsky, “Class and Art: Culture under the Dictatorship,” speech at the Discussion on Party Policy in the Field of Imaginative Literature, May 9, 1924.
15. Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 4, p. 365. Quoted in Sheila Fitzpatrick, “AV Lunacharsky: Recent Soviet Interpretations and Republications,” Soviet Studies 18, no. 3 (1967): 288.
16. Sochor, Revolution and Culture, 169.
17. It should be borne in mind that both the vanguard and the proletariat had demonstrated against the NEP as a whole, seeing it as a betrayal of “communist principles” and a breeding ground for the opportunist “roadies” who had taken the body out of the revolution during the difficult years of the civil war. At the same time, although many vanguardists participated in Proletkult organizations — it was among the very few cultural institution left standing after the revolution — they were at odds with their ideologues, who saw them as a harmful petty-bourgeois influence.
18. Juan José Gómez Gutiérrez, ed., Crítica, tendencia y propaganda: Textos sobre arte y comunismo, 1917–1954 (Seville: Editorial Doble J, 2010).
19. Sheila Fitzpatrick analyzes how many of the arguments for proletarian culture had their peak of influence around 1928 (coinciding with Stalinism’s “class against class” turn) and served part of the party’s cultural apparatus to settle scores, accusing those who opposed the moves of Trotskyist deviation — arguments that were used later, in Stalinism’s “popular front” period, against opponents. See Sheila Fitzpatrick, “The Emergence of Glaviskusstvo: Class War on the Cultural Front, Moscow, 1928–29,” Soviet Studies 23, no. 2 (1971): 236–53.
20. Such was the path, for example, of the Surrealists and the experience of the journal Partisan Review in the United States. For this period and its discussions, see the introduction to Ariane Díaz, ed., El encuentro de Breton y Trotsky en México (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2016).
21. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, chap. 7, “Family, Youth, and Culture” (1936).

About author

Ariane Diaz

Ariane Diaz

Ariane was born in Buenos Aires Province in 1977. She has a degree in Literature and is a member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS). She compiled and prefaced the books Philosophical Writings , by León Trotsky (2004), and The Meeting of Breton and Trotsky in Mexico (2016). She wrote in the book Dialectical Constellations. Tentativas sobre Walter Benjamin (2008), and writes on Marxist theory and culture.