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Marxism or Populism? A Debate About Proletarian Culture

The young Soviet Republic was fertile ground for the development of art with the emergence of new trends, genres and styles.

Ariane Diaz

April 28, 2018
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Revolutionary art drew from both traditional and new experimental styles. With the destruction of the old institutions that legitimized Great Russian culture and censored innovation, anything seemed possible.

Shortly before the Revolution, an artistic movement called “Prolekult” emerged. The organizations of the Proletkult, which quickly spread throughout Russia, were among the first to openly support the October Revolution. With the revolutionary upsurge, their projects were deployed rapidly and on a massive scale, making them protagonists of the cultural policies of the workers’ state during the years of the Civil War.

Many Bolsheviks participated in the Proletkult and supported the ideas that had been outlined out by Aleksandr Bogdanov. Their aim was to implement cultural activities among the working class. After the October Revolution, the Proletkult received state support to carry out activities ranging from literacy clubs to artistic training workshops. The People’s Commissary of Education of Russia, directed by Anatoly Lunacharsky, provided the Prolekult with a budget of about one-third of what was assigned to the adult education department. The Prolekult spread throughout the country and, according to its leaders, had a membership of 400,000 members in 1920. At the same time, an important debate emerged within the Bolshevik Party and the Prolekult about the role of art and proletarian culture in the particular conditions of the new Soviet state.

The Basis of Bogdanov

Aleksandr Bogdanov, one of the founders of the Prolekult, formulated his political perspective about the role of proletarian culture from the lessons he took from the defeat of the Revolution of 1905. At this point, he was still a member of the Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social Democratic Party. He knew that, in 1905, the proletariat had not yet attained the tools necessary to lead the revolution; it did not have leadership control over the oppressed masses. With this insight, Bogdanov developed an entire worldview from a proletarian perspective, arguing that this was an important missing element in the 1905 Revolution.

Bogdanov drew a parallel between the workers’ and the bourgeois revolution, observing that, prior to seizing power, the latter had deployed its own worldview to all fields — from the economic and scientific to the philosophical and artistic — what we know today as Enlightenment ideas. Bogdanov thought that the working class should play a similar role, elaborating a class perspective and developing a “proletarian culture.” He even spoke of a “workers’ encyclopedia” (1) similar to the monumental project of the Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alambert, and he wrote about the possibility of proletarian universities and proletarian sciences.

Bogdanov thought that it was necessary to build “a proletarian science.” He argued that:

“This means a science that is acceptable, understandable, and accountable to [the proletariat’s] life mission, a science that is organized from the proletariat’s point of view, one that is capable of leading [the proletariat’s] forces to struggle for, attain, and implement its social ideals.” (2)

The lack of a previously-developed proletarian perspective in all aspects of society and culture led Bogdanov to oppose the seizure of power in October, which he considered premature. However, after the revolution, he worked with the new state as leader of the Proletkult, an organization in which many Bolshevik party members would participate. The Prolekult, which means “cultural activity of the proletariat,” became a broad movement made up of artists and intellectuals in the newly-formed Soviet Republic.

Bogdanov’s ideas were echoed by some of the Bolsheviks, including Pletnev:

“The party, of necessity, included a coalition with the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. By their very nature, these allies were “incapable of comprehending the new spiritual culture of the working class. In state organizations, they will always superimpose their petty bourgeois imprint. As Pletnev, the chairman of Proletkult, declared, it was the duty of Proletkult, as part of the “revolutionary army” to defend the interests of the new regime.” (3)

Bogdanov’s proposal was to break with the previous cultural traditions because he saw them as a vehicle of bourgeois ideology. However, unlike other members of the Prolekult, he was not part of the iconoclastic wing that suggested the destruction of the art and culture of the czarist era. Instead, Bogdanov proposed a working-class critique of the old art as a way to form a new proletarian society.

What would that proletarian culture look like? In Bogdanov’s text, “The Paths of Proletarian Creation,” he argues that, “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.”

Bogdanov argued that this type of work has two characteristics:

“1) the unification of elements in “physical” and “spiritual” labor; 2) the transparent, unconcealed, and unmasked collectivism of its actual form (…) The second characteristic depends on the concentration of working force in mass collaboration and on the association between specialized types of labor within mechanical production, and association that is transferring more and more direct physical, specialist’s work to machines. (Bogdanov 179-180)” (4)

In this sense, Bogdanov supported proletarian creation based on proletarian production. He suggested that “Collectivism, initially an element process and then an increasingly conscious one, is making its mark on the content of works of art and even on the artistic form through which life is perceived.” (5)

This hypothesis poses a problem: the basis of work in modern industry is alienation. From the more specialized Fordist version to the Taylorist method of production, workers are subordinated to the time and rhythm of the production line with no say in what is produced or how it is produced. The objective is large-scale, cheap production of commodities. In this sense, modern industry is far from the Marxist notion of art as non-alienated production or the opposite of capitalist forms of production. This kind of production could be seen as one that takes less time and would free us to pursue leisure activities. In fact, Fordism was attractive to many Marxists for that reason. However, this is not Bogdanov’s perspective, as he insists specifically on that method of organization for industrial labor.

The 1924 Debate: Proletarian Culture, Bourgeois Culture

As previously mentioned, Bogdanov believed that proletarian culture should precede proletarian revolution, just as bourgeois ideas had preceeded great bourgeois revolutions.

However, the working class does not come to power as a possessing class but as a dispossessed class. Therefore, only after the seizure of power can it begin to deploy and develop elements or perspectives that identify it as a class and consolidate its authority over the other oppressed classes. This key difference in circumstance was ignored by Bogdanov.

Although Bogdanov is usually identified with the ultra-left wings of Russian social democracy, his approach to culture was dangerously close to the illusions of European social democracy which maintain focus on increasing representation within parliament and on the institutions of the bourgeois regime. The illusion on which this strategy was based was quickly exposed by the defeat of the German Revolution. In a backwards czarist country like Russia, the idea that a proletarian culture would precede bourgeois culture is even more illusory.

The debate was taken up at a 1924 meeting of top Bolshevik party members including Lunacharsky, Bukharin, Averbakh, Raskolnikov, Radek, Ryazanov, Pletnev, and Trotsky. The Soviet leaders discussed the politics of the party in the field of literary production, and in this meeting, they focused on the debate around the role of culture in the transitional period.

Those who defended the idea of ​​”proletarian culture” at the meeting did not necessarily subscribe to all of Bogdanov’s ideas. Prior to the meeting, Trotsky polemicized on the issue in his work “Literature and Revolution” when he discussed the objectives of the socialist revolution. He argued that the goal of the socialist revolution was not the strengthening of a particular class, even if that class is the oppressed majority because building socialism is precisely the dissolution of all classes.

The backdrop to this discussion was the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923 which had left the Soviet workers’ state isolated. Discussions of culture were connected to this defeat as the USSR sought to preserve the gains of the socialist revolution in adverse conditions. Lunacharsky explains 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, no 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? Trotsky says that in time of revolution art is infected with revolutionary energy. For us, revolutionary art can only be proletarian revolutionary art. 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.” (6)

Bukharin makes a similar criticism, arguing 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.” (7)

But what meaning did art produced by the proletariat have for Trotsky in a context in which the Russian Revolution brought about a democratization of art allowing more workers to produce it? From one point of view, its value was enormous — it was as significant as the appearance of works by Shakespeare, Moliere or Pushkin. As Trotsky explained at the 1924 meeting, new proletarian art demonstrated the incorporation of huge social sectors (who had been hitherto banned from cultural production) into the creation of art. But this was still far from representing a new culture, especially if we define culture as a complete view of social life.

A parallel can be drawn between Trotsky’s concept of art and his ideas about women in a class society: even if the workers’ state guaranteed equality under the law, this did not signify equality in everyday life. That would be a task that future generations would have the opportunity to develop and enjoy. For this reason, the state would have to take transitory measures that might seem contrary to its program such as promoting civil marriage to combat the influence of the Church. These contradictions, when ignored in the name of abstract principles that do not account for real conditions, do not just disappear. On the contrary, denying them hinders the formulation of a program to deal with them thoroughly.

The arguments of the Proletkult did not move the country toward a revolutionary policy: critical knowledge that could overcome the previous artistic tradition required a series of tools that the leaders of Proletkult might have had but that the working masses certainly did not have yet. Therefore, demagoguery could quickly turn into condescension in lieu of a truly democratizing policy. Trotsky directed his disagreement against the ideas put forth by Prolekult leaders, which he characterizes as populist disguised as Marxist. He did not take the easy route in his argument against those who defended Prolekult; he did not highlight the non-proletarian upbringing and education of the leaders (who were far from being rank-and-file workers on the production line). Attacking them this way would have been fitting, as this was the basis of attacks by many leaders of the Prolekult against their opponents. Instead, Trotsky argued against the conception of Marxism that they put forward. In order to defend Marxism, surprisingly, Trotsky pointed out its limitations.

Trotsky insisted that we should not ask Marxism to provide answers to all artistic and scientific problems. It is one thing is to highlight the origin of the novel as a genre within bourgeois society using Marxist characterizations. However, it is not the purview of Marxism to determine the “class character” of the first-person narrative or of the grammatical structure of a particular text.

Returning then to the initial question, why did the Bolsheviks take up a discussion about art and culture in such a tumultuous moment in early Soviet history?

The debate about “proletarian culture” among the Bolshevik Party was not confined to the literary and artistic. Instead, the discussion required consideration of the most important problems of proletarian power in a society that had not ended class contradictions and had found itself in state of isolation.

The first years after the Russian Revolution opened up an era of unbridled development of art among the working class, despite the adverse conditions of USSR. This demonstrates that in a revolutionary state, art can finally be freed from the chains that constrain it in a capitalist society. Despite the advances of Bolsheviks in those first years following the revolution, the Stalinist counter-revolution not only reversed the gains of the working class inthe realm of working class democracy, but also in the realm of culture and art.

Translation by Tatiana Cozzarelli


1 Alexander Bogdanov, “The Paths of Proletarian Creation,” in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism (New York: Viking Press, 1976), 178-181.
2 Quoted in Lynn Mally, Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 162-163.
3 Zenovia A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 141.
4 Bogdanov, “Paths of Proletarian Creation,” 178-181.
5 Ibid.
6 Quoted in Sheila Fizpatrick, “A. V. Lunacharsky: Recent Soviet Interpretations and Republications,” Soviet Studies 18, no. 3 (January 1967), 269.
7 Quoted in Fizpatrick, “A. V. Lunacharsky,” 271.


Bogdanov, Alexander. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Bowlt, J.E. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.

Fizpatrick, Sheila. “A. V. Lunacharsky: Recent Soviet Interpretations and Republications.” Soviet Studies 18, no. 3 (January 1967): 267 – 289.

———. Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Art under Lunacharsky. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Mally, L.. Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Sochor, Zenovia A. Revolution and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

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