By Doug Enaa Greene
May 13, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Cosmonaut — The argument that a “cultural revolution” is a necessary part of a socialist revolution is generally associated with Mao Zedong and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that he initiated in China. However, Leon Trotsky, in a vastly different way than Mao, stated that Russia needed a cultural revolution. According to Trotsky, a cultural revolution was needed along with industrialization to construct socialism. Trotsky’s industrialization plan for Russia would increase the social weight of the proletariat. A cultural revolution would raise the masses’ cultural level by eradicating mass illiteracy and superstition and change their habits and customs, which would make the working class fit to rule society.
The Heritage of Underdevelopment
According to Marx, socialism would develop first in industrialized capitalist countries with their vast productive powers and rich cultural heritage that the working class would use to build a new order. Contrary to Marx, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in a backward country, which complicated matters in regards to cultural transformation. Although the major urban centers were “islands of capitalism” with a high concentration of workers in modern factories, large portions of the countryside were just emerging from feudalism. As the Bolsheviks recognized, Russia did not possess the material and cultural conditions needed to overcome capitalism on its own. Both Lenin and Trotsky believed that one of the tasks of the new Soviet republic was to begin the process of creating them. However, the low levels of culture, technical skill, etc., for most of the population along with the isolation of the revolution meant that options were limited.
For Lenin, questions of culture and ideology were intimately connected with the goals of communism – how to overcome the legacy of capitalism and class society. According to Georg Lukács, Lenin’s cultural strategy had three goals:
To abolish the difference between village and city, to abolish the difference between physical and intellectual labour, and to restore the meaningfulness and autonomous nature of labour. Here, too, economic construction and cultural revolution appear inseparable. The electrification of the village, the mechanisation of agricultural production, and such like, directly serve purely economic goals: increased production. However, this increase is not achievable by means other than continuously raising the cultural level of the village; so, too, it requires that agricultural production draw ever closer to the principles of planned factory-production, to principles supported by the latest achievements of science, which master nature ever more thoroughly, and which demand of the labour-force scientific capabilities.
Lenin’s vision, shared by Trotsky, was that the working class had to not only master the achievements and culture of bourgeois society but overcome their limitations in the construction of socialism. The development of a socialist planned economy coincided with not only economic modernization, but also cultural transformation. Modernization and the increase of productive forces were not seen as ends in themselves – this would merely reinforce the inequalities of capitalism – but were part of an all-around transformation of the conditions of life.
Trotsky and the Proletkult
The Russian Revolution not only brought the working class power, but unleashed great artistic and cultural creativity. Among the changes there were assaults on the traditional family, divorce was made easy, women expanded their horizons, social privilege was rejected, new laws put national equality in place of Great Russian chauvinism (anti-Semitism was outlawed). There was social experimentation in everything from factory organization to education. The Revolution saw the flowering of the artistic avant-garde, as can be seen in the symbolic image of the “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” or the emblem of the hammer and sickle that are powerful representations to convey the values of the revolutionary cause to communists, artists, and workers. Lastly, there was the Proletkult, a movement of Bolshevik intellectuals, artists and workers inspired by the ideas Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who rejected class culture and wanted to create a culture, science, and art based on the values of internationalism, materialism, and atheism. A new proletarian culture, stripped of bourgeois influences, would be the basis of modern socialist society.
Lenin did not think very highly of the Proletkult movement, stating:
Proletarian culture is not something that suddenly springs from nobody knows where, and is not invented by people who set up as specialists in proletarian culture. Proletarian culture is the regular development of those stores of knowledge which mankind has worked out for itself under the yoke of capitalist society, of feudal society, of bureaucratic society.
Lenin’s negative view of the Proletkult movement was shared by Trotsky, who argued that
It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human.
According to Trotsky, every class creates its own art and culture, but bourgeois culture developed in a protracted period of several centuries before taking power, while the proletariat did not develop its own culture before the revolution. Furthermore, a proletarian dictatorship was transitory (lasting years or decades) and during that time, the attention of the working class would mainly be absorbed in fierce political struggles. There would be no development of a distinctive proletarian culture, since the dictatorship of the proletariat leads to the end of class distinctions and the creation of a universal human culture. Considering the backwardness of the Russian proletariat in regards to culture, Trotsky said they needed to critically appropriate, absorb and assimilate the old culture. According to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky said the working class
ought to view the cultural legacy dialectically and see its historically formed contradictions. The achievements of civilization had so far served a double purpose: they had assisted man in gaining knowledge and control of nature and in developing his own capacities; but they had also served to perpetuate society’s division into classes and man’s exploitation by man. Consequently, some elements of the heritage were of universal significance and validity while others were bound up with obsolete or obsolescent social systems. The communist approach to the cultural legacy should therefore be selective.
Cover of Furnace, an official organ of Proletkult, designed by Aleksandr Zugrin
Economic Development and Cultural Revolution
Trotsky’s conception of a cultural revolution involved the proletariat eliminating illiteracy, superstition and raising their cultural level, so they would be fit to rule. However, Russian backwardness meant that different and contradictory conceptions of the world coexisted together among the people, even among communists:
A man is a sound communist devoted to the cause, but women are for him just “females,” not to be taken seriously in any way. Or it happens that an otherwise reliable communist, when discussing nationalistic matters, starts talking hopelessly reactionary stuff. To account for that we must remember that different parts of the human consciousness do not change and develop simultaneously and on parallel lines. There is a certain economy in the process. Human psychology is very conservative by nature, and the change due to the demands and the push of life affects in the first place those parts of the mind which are directly concerned in the case.
A resolute struggle was needed to raise the cultural level of the proletariat and peasantry so they wouldn’t reproduce systems of oppression and domination under a socialist veneer. The battle against backward ideas and attitudes was not simply a struggle for ideas, habits, and attitudes needed to be connected with uprooting the material conditions that engendered them.
Socialism would overcome those conditions by creating modern industry, improving the standard of living and increasing the weight of the proletariat in Soviet society: “The decisive factor in appraising the movement of our country forward along the road of socialist reconstruction, must be the growth of our productive forces and the dominance of the socialist elements over the capitalist—together with an improvement of all the conditions of existence of the working class.” At the same time, the bureaucracy who ruled had to be combated and the workers needed to be in firm control of the Soviets, trade unions and the Party. Although Trotsky did not believe that the USSR would be secure until the worldwide victory of socialism, they had a task to hold out until they could receive aid from revolutions abroad. Ultimately, the worldwide victory of socialism, the development of industry and culture would free the proletariat from the shackles of feudalism, make them fit to rule.
Trotsky’s ideas on cultural revolution and developing industry formed a single integrated strategic vision:
even the slightest successes in the sphere of morals, by raising the cultural level of the working man and woman, enhance our capacity for rationalizing production, and promoting socialist accumulation. This again gives us the possibility of making fresh conquests in the sphere of morals. Thus a dialectical dependence exists between the two spheres.
A cultural revolution could not be delayed until the productive forces were already developed but needed to be done simultaneously, otherwise, old customs, relations, habits of Russian backwardness would engulf the revolution.
Soviet underdevelopment meant the bureaucratization of the party and state were real and pressing problems. There was a tendency among the bureaucracy to protect its monopoly to information from the working class. As Marx said, the bureaucracy “is a hierarchy of knowledge.” The Soviet bureaucrats did not want the masses involved in the life of the country:
What is the use, they say, of wasting time in discussions? Let the authorities start running communal kitchens, creches, laundries, hostels, etc. Bureaucratic dullards usually add (or rather imply, or say in whispers—they prefer that to open speech): “It is all words, and nothing more.” The bureaucrat hopes…that when we get rich, we shall, without further words, present the proletariat with cultured conditions of life as with a sort of birthday gift. No need, say such critics, to carry on propaganda for socialist conditions among the masses—the process of labour itself creates “a sense of socialness.”
Trotsky said this problem would not be solved by replacing the “bad” bureaucrats with “good” ones, but the working class taking charge in the construction of socialism.
Trotsky’s approach to the bureaucracy was guided by several considerations:
1) The party and state could not possibly know everything. Bureaucrats tend to be inert and distrust initiative, but socialism requires the masses taking conscious leadership to solve the problems of economic development and cultural change.
2) Socialist consciousness will not emerge in a spontaneous way. Although the “state can organize conditions of life down to the last cell of the community,” but unless the workers themselves were involved in the process, then “no serious and radical changes can possibly be achieved in economic conditions and home life.” Whereas the previous generation of workers learned communism through class struggle and revolution, the next generation will learn “in the elements of construction, the elements of the construction of everyday life. The formulas of our program are, in principle, true. But we must continually prove them, renew them, make them concrete in living experience, and spread them in a wider sphere.” While the state will play a major role in constructing socialism, the masses had to be the guiding force: “The proletarian state is the structural timber, not the structure itself. The importance of a revolutionary government in a period of transition is immeasurable… It does not mean that all work of building will be performed by the state.”
3) The course of socialist development meant that change could not from enlightened bureaucrats, but through coordination of local needs within an overall plan. Ultimately, socialism requires revolutionary practice by the working class and not administration by bureaucrats.
Although the party needed to promote their own cultural workers (artists, writers, etc), this did not mean that the party had a monopoly on knowledge. A cultural revolution needed pluralism and competing currents of artistic and literary schools – save for those who were openly and unambiguously counterrevolutionary. While the party should provide guidance in the realm of culture, it should not enforce a state-led cultural revolution. According to Trotsky: “The state is an organ of coercion and for Marxists in positions of power these may be a temptation to simplify cultural and educational work among the masses by using the approach of ‘Here is the truth – down on your knees to it !”
Trotsky rejected the claims of the Proletkult that Marxism was a universal system which provided a master key for every problem. According to him,
The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same as the artistic. …The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but it can only lead it indirectly….And at any rate, the Party cannot and will not take the position of a literary circle which is struggling and merely competing with other literary circles.
Trotsky’s plan for a cultural revolution and economic development was to realize the communist dream where “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” A communist society would mean a transformation in the arts where “technique will become a more powerful inspiration for artistic work, and later on the contradiction itself between technique and nature will be solved in a higher synthesis.” Art and culture would be cleansed of the inequities of class society and flourish under communism. People would finally be free to develop their capabilities to the fullest. In a lyrical passage, Trotsky described the untold possibilities of cultural development under communism:
It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
Construction on White (Robot), by Aleksandr Rodchenko 1920
Trotsky and Mao
At the 1942 Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Mao rejected Trotsky’s approach to culture as one of “dualism” or “pluralism” which confined the party’s leadership extended to “politics,” while art remained “bourgeois” (a mischaracterization of Trotsky’s position):
Party work in literature and art occupies a definite and assigned position in Party revolutionary work as a whole and is subordinated to the revolutionary tasks set by the Party in a given revolutionary period. Opposition to this arrangement is certain to lead to dualism or pluralism, and in essence amounts to “politics–Marxist, art—bourgeois”…
For Mao, art and culture needed to be subordinate to the requirements of politics, since they
are part of the whole revolutionary cause, they are cogs and wheels in it, and though in comparison with certain other and more important parts they may be less significant and less urgent and may occupy a secondary position, nevertheless, they are indispensable cogs and wheels in the whole machine, an indispensable part of the entire revolutionary cause. If we had no literature and art even in the broadest and most ordinary sense, we could not carry on the revolutionary movement and win victory. Failure to recognize this is wrong. Furthermore, when we say that literature and art are subordinate to politics, we mean class politics, the politics of the masses, not the politics of a few so-called statesmen.
While art and culture had previously served the bourgeoisie, now Mao said both would serve the proletariat.
Since art and culture were stamped by class and politics, reactionary ideas needed to be struggled against. Like Trotsky, Mao does not believe the working class should reject art from previous epochs, stating
We should take over the rich legacy and the good traditions in literature and art that have been handed down from past ages in China and foreign countries, but the aim must still be to serve the masses of the people. Nor do we refuse to utilize the literary and artistic forms of the past, but in our hands these old forms, remoulded and infused with new content, also become something revolutionary in the service of the people.
It was the task of revolutionary artists, cultural workers, and intellectuals to take the stand of the working class and the masses, not those of the elite. Art had to be produced for the masses and taken up by them as a weapon of struggle. In order for writers and artists to accomplish this, their primary task was to know the people (their daily lives, “common sense,” feelings, struggles, etc) and develop the cultural forms created by the people and tease out the elements of “good sense.” Art and culture must reflect the problems and aspirations of ordinary people and not the aspirations of the old ruling classes. Mao’s conception of culture was successfully able to mobilize millions to take the fight against the Japanese and the People’s Liberation.
There was a potential for abuse in Mao’s conception of culture, which can mean cultural control by the party – who could determine what was or was not revolutionary. In contrast, Trotsky granted a greater scope for culture outside of the control of the party (save for openly counterrevolutionary voices).
Mao’s theory behind the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was that a series of cultural revolutions were necessary to “continue the revolution” since bourgeois survivals remained in both the economy and the superstructure that conflicted with new political, cultural and ideological ideas. According to Mao, the superstructure did not automatically change in response to developments in the base, rather there was a lag as the old culture lingered. A conscious effort is needed through mass campaigns and action. If a conscious effort is made to change the superstructure, this would in turn spur development of the economic base as encapsulated in the slogan “grasp revolution, promote production.”
Since the People’s Republic was a transitional society, the birthmarks of capitalism continued to exist and were reproduced – such as the law of value, disparities in decision-making, inequality, access to resources, education, culture, and the persistence of patriarchy which encouraged a breach between the party and the masses. Mao feared that these tendencies would lead to the growth of capitalist restorationist elements within both the party and state.
The Cultural Revolution rejected the premise of developing the productive forces and recognized that the class struggle continued under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only the continuing revolutionizing of the productive relations would increase the control of the masses in society, overcoming capitalist economic relations and the ideological and political relations which reproduce them, in order to continue on the socialist road.
The Cultural Revolution was launched in May 1966 a call to the masses, inside and outside of the party, to overthrow the “capitalist roaders” in the party and state, and root out old ideas and culture:
Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.
The Maoist vision of Cultural Revolution was voluntaristic and idealistic with an under-estimation of the weight of economic factors. While socialists need to reject economism, this doesn’t mean socialism can be built by political will regardless of unfavorable conditions. The ultimate criteria for determining the capitalist or socialist character of a society was whether or not it followed the correct political line (in this case, Mao Zedong Thought). This can lead to declaring that the class character of the party and socialism have little to do with the working class, but that socialism is solely determined solely by ideology and political line.
The Soviet Cultural Front
Although Trotsky was ousted from power, at beginning of the Five Year Plans, the USSR did embark on its own cultural revolution. The Soviet cultural revolution opened vast avenues of educational and cultural mobility for the working class throughout society. According to the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, the purpose of the cultural revolution was “both asserting party control over cultural life and opening up the administrative and professional elite to a new cohort of young Communists and workers.” Although the Soviets had a long-standing policy of placing workers into administrative positions, this was done on an unprecedented scale during the cultural revolution. According to Fitzpatrick: “Of the 861,000 persons classified as ‘leading cadres and specialists’ in the Soviet Union at the end of 1933, over 140,000- more than one in six had been blue-collar workers only five years earlier. But this was only the tip of the iceberg. The total number of workers moving into white-collar jobs during the First Five-Year Plan was probably at least one and a half million.” Furthermore, the numbers of workers receiving higher education swelled: “About 150,000 workers and Communists entered higher education during the First Five-Year Plan, most of them studying engineering since technical expertise rather than Marxist social science was now regarded as the best qualification for leadership in an industrializing society.” These newly educated workers and administrators rejected the claims of bourgeois experts to leadership in production, leading them to view some elements in the party “as protectors of the bourgeois intelligentsia, over-reliant on the advice of non-party experts, complacent about the influence of experts and former Tsarist officials within the government bureaucracy, and prone to infection by ‘rotten liberalism’ and bourgeois values.” The Soviet cultural revolution (whatever its limitations) struggled against bourgeois values, intellectuals, culture, elitism and bureaucracy in all aspects of society. The cultural revolution fired the imaginations of young party members and workers who were encouraged to attack any manifestation of liberalism or capitalism, “but at the same time they were instinctively hostile to most existing authorities and institutions, which they suspected of bureaucratic and ‘objectively counter-revolutionary’ tendencies.” Many of the cultural revolution’s initiatives were spontaneous and outside of party control, but their ideas “were also taken seriously, receiving wide publicity and also, in many cases, substantial funding from various government agencies and other official bodies.”
Despite the great advancements in education and upward mobility for the Soviet working class during the 1930s, the same period also saw the growth of the bureaucracy and a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. In the USSR, the traditions of Marxism mixed uneasily with those of Tsarism and Greek Orthodoxy. As time passed, the structure of the Communist Party and society more and more resembled the spirit of the Orthodox Church with its dogmas, orthodoxy, heresies, and inquisitions (most grossly on display during the Purge Trials). Furthermore, the social weight of the peasantry and backwardness took their revenge as beliefs in “primitive magic” found expression in the party and state. According to Deutscher, primitive magic was common amongst the peasantry and “expressed man’s helplessness amid the forces of nature which he had not yet learned to control; and that, on the whole, modern technology and organization are its deadliest enemies. On the technological level of the wooden plough primitive magic flourishes.” Initially, the Bolsheviks spoke a language of reason to the peasantry, but as the revolution’s emancipatory energies were exhausted, the party “lost the sense of its own elevation above its native environment, once it had become aware that it could only fall back on that environment and dig itself in, it began to descend to the level of primitive magic, and to appeal to the people in the language of that magic.” Nothing exemplifies the Soviet embrace of primitive magic more than the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, who was seen as the all-knowing and all-wise leader. In the later Stalin years, rampant chauvinism was fostered in the USSR “to convince the Soviet people that the Russians, and the Russians alone, had been the initiators of all the epoch-making ideas and of all the modern technical discoveries…[which] goes back to that remote epoch when the tribe cultivated a belief in its own mysterious powers which set it apart from and above all other tribes.”
By the time of the Great Purges, the sheer weight of Russian backwardness and isolation took their toll as the cultural revolution and emancipatory initiatives were rolled back. In their place, the Soviets reasserted old moral and cultural values, a need for order, authority and social hierarchy, promotion of the traditional family and increasingly, Russian nationalism. The USSR shed its iconoclasm in the cultural sphere and promoted “Socialist Realism” which glorified the achievements of the Soviet state and society. According to the Marxist cultural critic Ernest Fischer, Socialist Realism was a “tendency to control the arts, to administer and manipulate them, to drive out the spirit of criticism and free imagination, and to transform artists into officials, into illustrators of resolutions.” Trotsky viewed Socialist Realism as a symptom of Thermidorian decline, disillusionment, and a move towards conservative uniformity:
The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called “socialist realism.” The name itself has evidently been invented by some high functionary in the department of the arts. This “realism” consists in the imitation of provincial daguerreotypes of the third quarter of the last century; the “socialist” character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the “great” and “brilliant” leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.
Trotsky’s vision of a cultural revolution, just like that of industrialization, was connected with questions of working-class emancipation and socialism. Economic development would increase the proletariat’s social weight in society. The proletariat would need to assert their own interests by controlling both the party and state (meaning both had to be democratized). To enable the working class to rule, the USSR had to build a modern society with education, social provisions, and raise the standard of living. Therefore, a cultural revolution was necessary to raise the spiritual and cultural level of the working class so they could consciously create socialism.
- Georg Lukács, “Literature and Democracy,” in The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945–1948, ed. Tyrus Miller (Boston: Brill, 2013), 35.
- Quoted in Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 17.
- Ibid, 32-33.
- Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929 (New York: Verso Books, 2003b), 142.
- Leon Trotsky, “The Struggle for Cultured Speech,” in Problems of Everyday Life(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 54.
- Leon Trotsky, “The Platform of the Opposition: The Party Crisis and How to Overcome It,” in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), 311.
- “Habit and Custom,” in Trotsky 1973, 30.
- “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” Marx and Engels Collected Works 3 (London: Lawrence & Wishart), 46.
- “Against Bureaucracy, Progressive and Unprogressive,” in Trotsky 1973, 57.
- Ibid. 61.
- “How to Begin,” in Trotsky 1973, 70.
- Ibid. 6. This analysis of Trotsky on culture and cultural revolution is indebted to chapter 6 of Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (electronic book in my possession).
- “Leninism and Workers’ Clubs,” in Trotsky 1973, 289.
- Trotsky 2005, 179.
- Ibid, 205.
- Ibid, 207.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung Volume 3 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), 86.
- Ibid, 76.
- “Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm
- Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 141
- Ibid, 141.
- Ibid. 144-145.
- Ibid, 142.
- Ibid. 143. See also Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931 (London: Indiana University Press, 1978).
- Isaac Deutscher, Russia After Stalin (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), 48-49.
- Ibid, 49
- Ibid, 52.
- Ernst Fischer, Art Against Ideology (New York: Penguin Press, 1969), 173.
- Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” Marxists Internet Archive.https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm