Marxism and art

An Introduction to Trotsky’s Writings on Art, by Alan Woods

"The realm of freedom actually only begins where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases." (Marx)

Art is important to people. It has always been so from the earliest human societies, when it was indissolubly linked to magic -that is, to the first primitive attempts of men and women to understand and gain control over the world in which they live. And although it would appear that art in modern society plays a less central role, in reality this is not the case.

The Bible says “man does not live by bread alone”. Although the importance of art does not occur to most people, it will instantly become evident if we try to imagine a world without art, that is, a world without colour, without music, without fantasy and imagination. Such a world would be utterly unbearable, because it would be an inhuman world. The present alienated world of capitalism is inhuman enough. The conditions in which we live and work are already sufficiently unbearable. Yet millions find solace in music and dance, and become emotionally involved in the world of cinema, film stars and drama series on television. All this is an expression of art. Whether it is good or bad art is another matter. But that it says something to people, that it strikes a chord that vibrates in their hearts and souls, that it is important to our lives, is beyond all question.

To a colourless world, art brings an element of colour. To lives without meaning it gives a ray of hope. Art in all its forms makes us lift up our eyes, if only for a fleeting moment, above the dreary everyday existence, and makes us feel that there is something more to life than this, that we can be better than we are, that the relations between people can be human, that the world could be a better place than it is. Art is thus the collective dream of humanity, the expression of a deep-seated feeling that our lives are not what they ought to be, and a passionate if unconscious striving for something different.

From its earliest beginnings art was clearly not individual but social in character. The beautiful cave paintings of France and Spain were created in the deepest and most inaccessible parts of caves. These were therefore not intended as mere decoration, but as part of a ritual aimed at very practical ends - namely, to gain control over the bison, deer and wild horses which were hunted for food. Similar practical social purposes were present in the origins of song and dance.

With the development of the division of labour, the productive base of society takes a great leap forward, but at the same time, humanity’s gain is its loss. The separation of the different aspects of production, culminating in the division of mental and manual labour, is the prior condition for the separation of mankind into classes, with all that this implies for humanity. For the past ten millennia, the price of the most staggering social and economic progress has been the forcible alienation of the majority of the human race from the fruits of its labour, and at the same time the forcible exclusion of the majority of men and women from the world of culture.

Engels explains that in any society where art, science and government are the monopoly of a few, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. This is the real basis of all class society. And this will always be the case, as long as the majority are compelled to work long hours to obtain the basic necessities of life. Aristotle long ago explained that man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided. The creation of a leisure class through slavery was the real material basis upon which art, science and technology has been developed. But these achievements serve to conceal the dark side of human history: namely, the exclusion of millions of men and women from the benefits of culture. An immense potential has been systematically aborted and destroyed. It is the task of socialism to put an end to this terrible crime against humanity and to open the door to a new and glorious page in human development.

Historical materialism

It is not possible to understand the development of art purely from a biological, psychological or genetic standpoint. One of the most fundamental differences between humans and other species is precisely the importance of culture, which is not inherited, but learned, mainly through the vehicle of language. It is language that makes us what we are. But, as Engels explains in his masterpiece The Role of Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man, it was the hand that created the brain, not the other way round. Humankind developed through labour and the production of tools, and this is social, not individual, activity. The development of culture, in turn, is clearly dependent on the development of what Marxists call the productive forces. It is not a biological but a social phenomenon.

It does not require a great deal of intelligence to understand that people's ideas, views and conceptions (i.e., consciousness) change with every change in the material conditions of life. It is said that humans are distinguished from other animals by religion. Equally it can be said that humans differ from other animals by possessing art, literature, science or philosophy. However, what is clear is that men and women began to develop these differences only when they began to produce tools and thus began to free themselves from complete dependence on the forces of nature. This much is clear, and is the basis of historical materialism, the Marxist method of interpreting history. Marxism explains that the viability of any socio-economic system depends in the last analysis on the development of the productive forces. But Marx and Engels never maintained that all of human development could be reduced to economics. The relationship between the economic “base” and the ideological “superstructure” is not simple and direct but dialectical and contradictory.

In a letter to Paul Ernst dated 5th June 1899, Engels reiterated his warning against a dogmatic interpretation of historical materialism: "As far as your attempt to treat the matter materialistically is concerned, I must say in the first place that the materialist method turns into its opposite if it is not taken as one's guiding principle in historical investigation but as a ready-made pattern according to which one shapes the facts of history to suit ones self."

Just as the laws that govern social development must be derived from a painstaking study of the facts, so it is with art. Any attempt to shed light on the development of art, literature and music must come as the result of an objective study of the subject matter itself. Such a study, however, falls outside the scope of the present article, since it would require many volumes. Suffice it to say that the Marxist analysis of the relation between culture and economic development has nothing in common with vulgar economic determination, as the following extract from the correspondence of Marx and Engels makes clear:

"As to the realms of ideology which soar still higher in the air, religion, philosophy, etc., these have a prehistoric stock, found already in existence and taken over in the historic period, of which we should today call bunk. These various false conceptions of nature, of man's own being, of spirits, magic forces, etc., have for the most part only a negative economic basis; but the low economic development of the prehistoric period is supplemented and also partially conditioned and even caused by the false conceptions of nature. And even though economic necessity was the main driving force of the progressive knowledge of nature and becomes ever more so, it would surely be pedantic to try and find economic causes for all this primitive nonsense. The history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of this nonsense or of its replacement by fresh but already less absurd nonsense. The people who deal with this belong in their turn to special spheres in the division of labour and appear to themselves to be working in an independent field. And insofar as they form an independent group within the social division of labour, in so far do their productions, including their errors, react back as an influence upon the whole development of society, even on economic development. But all the same they themselves remain under the dominating influence of economic development." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 482-3.)

Later on we read: "But the philosophy of every epoch, since it is a definite sphere in the division of labour, has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors, from which it takes its start. That is why economically backward countries can still play first fiddle in philosophy." (Ibid., p. 483.)

The same observations hold good in the sphere of art and literature. The roots of these lie in the most remote antiquity. Schools of art constantly change and these great changes reflect in great measure the profound processes of change in society, the ultimate roots of which can be traced back to changes in the mode of production and their corresponding class relations, with all the myriad legal, political, religious, philosophical and aesthetic manifestations. However, the relationship between these elements is far from simple. It is complex and contradictory, involving many different aspects. In Marx's words, it would be pedantic to try to trace the link between art and economics, which, at best, is indirect and convoluted. Art, like religion, has its roots in prehistory. Ideas, styles, schools of art can survive in the minds of men long after the concrete socio-economic context in which they arose has been consigned to oblivion. The human mind, after all, is characterised by its innate conservatism. Ideas which have long since lost their raison d’être, remain stubbornly entrenched in the human psyche and continues to play a role -even a determining role in human development. This is most clear in the field of religion. But it is also present in the realm of art and literature.

Thus, art has its own immanent laws of development which must be studied as a specific field of investigation. Economic and social devilment clearly impinges on the development of art in a most important way. But the one cannot be mechanically reduced to the other. The study of the history of art must proceed empirically, attempting to draw out the immanent laws that determine its development. Only in this way can the real relationship between art and society be brought out into the light of day. In other words, the relation of art to the development of the productive forces is not simple and direct, but dialectical and contradictory.

The development of art, literature and philosophy does not reflect the general line of development of society and the productive forces directly. The rise and fall of the productive forces finds its expression in the minds of men and women in the most contradictory ways. Hegel once wrote: "The owl of Minerva takes its flight at sunset." When a given socio-economic order enters into a phase of decline, this is reflected in a crisis of values, morality and religion. This is most often accompanied by a general tendency towards introversion which, under certain conditions, can give rise to new philosophical and artistic trends. Trotsky refers to this in his brilliant article The Curve of Capitalist Development. It was already mentioned by Marx in one of his earliest works, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, where he writes: "As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure."

Is the artist a free individual?

"Social being determines consciousness." That is the great contribution of Marx and Engels to the understanding of human history. However, the way in which this determination takes place is far from simple. For example, it would be utterly absurd to attempt to derive the laws that govern the development of art and literature directly from the development of the productive forces. Such an attempt would necessarily produce an abortion. As we have seen, the development of art, music and literature must be studied specifically in terms of its internal laws of development. This constitutes a specific branch of investigation, quite separate from economics, politics or sociology. Nevertheless, the latter provides an understanding of the general socio-economic changes which shape and determine the general nature and psychology of the period in which the development of all branches of human culture unfold, the climate of the times that exercises, albeit unconsciously, a powerful conditioning effect on art and literature, along with everything else. The fact that the individual artist or writer is not aware of these influences and hotly denies them, is irrelevant. The artist lives in society and must fall under its influence as much as any other men and women.

The chief weakness of bourgeois aesthetics is that it rejects a priori the social influences that shape the development of art. Thus, the development of art is reduced to an essentially personal, i.e., psychological phenomenon. This subjectivism is entirely characteristic of the approach of the bourgeois in the present period to all branches of the social sciences: philosophy, economics and sociology. In fact, the idea that somehow art can stand outside or above society is a self-evident contradiction. Although art, literature and music have their own laws of development which cannot be reduced to those of economics or sociology, they are also not separated from society by a Chinese Wall. Art is, after all, a form of communication, although a very peculiar one. Despite all the prejudices about the lonely artist communicating with himself, in practice, no artist paints a picture that he does not intend to be seen, and no writer writes a novel or poem just for their personal consumption. And in order for art or literature to act as communication, it must have something to say. Art links the particular to the universal. The characters of a novel must be concrete, they must bear a sufficient resemblance to real men and women to be believable. But this is not sufficient. In order that these characters be interesting to us, they must stand for something more than just themselves.

The idea that the intellectual or the artist is "free" stems from a misunderstanding and a philosophical error. So-called free will has never existed except in idealist philosophy and religion (which basically amounts to the same thing). Leibnitz, the great German philosopher once remarked that if the magnetic needle could think it would be convinced that it pointed north out of its own free choice. Freud long ago demolished the notion that human thought and actions are free. More recent studies of the workings of the brain have finally demolished the myth of free will utterly. All our actions are conditioned, although we are not conscious of it. Intellectual productions are fundamentally conditioned by the social and cultural environment in which they take shape in the minds of men and women.

The origin of a given school of art or literature, its rise and fall, must remain a secret insofar as it is studied in isolation from the prevailing mood and trends that surround the artist and writer and affect his or her way of thinking in a decisive fashion. In turn, it is impossible to understand the general psychology of a given period in isolation from social and historical factors. And at bottom, it will be seen that these trends are affected in a decisive way by the development of the productive forces, the struggle between different classes and groups in society related to this, and the entire body of legal, religious, moral and philosophical trends that flow from this.

Artistic creativity represents a special branch of human consciousness with its own distinctive characteristics and patterns of development. To uncover the inner laws of development of art, literature and music is the task of a particular branch of study, namely aesthetics and the history of art. Nevertheless, this artistic consciousness is by no means a Thing-in-itself, and in the last analysis, must also partake of the general consciousness of society. Indeed, were this not the case, the artist would be unable to communicate with his fellows. The art of a given period resonates in the soul of men and women only because it reflects their innermost feelings, aspirations and frame of mind. The art of one period is so radically different from other periods because it arises out of a different social environment.

Society is divided into antagonistic classes. This inevitably gives rise to conflicting ideologies, reflecting the interests of different classes. The complicated criss-cross of ideas, philosophical, moral, religious and political trends and currents, exercise a powerful effect on the thinking of the epoch. Thus, every epoch has its own inherent cultural and aesthetic ideals, which by no means coincide with those of other epochs. The artistic models of one epoch can never be satisfactorily repeated in another epoch which is under the sway of different classes with a correspondingly different psychology and aesthetic sense. Marx asks: "Is the conception of nature and social relations which underlies Greek imagination and therefore Greek [art] possible when there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and electric telegraphs?"

Of course, there is another, more complex side to this. In the history of art, although certain kinds of art die out and disappear, yet they simultaneously leave behind a residue and a tradition which in turn conditions later generations of artists. Art no more starts anew with every generation than does economics, philosophy, science or technology. Every period must stand on the shoulders of earlier generations. The way in which one school of art, music or literature is connected with another can be either positive or negative. Here we have good example of the dialectical law of attraction and repulsion. A new school of art can either repeat or copy older models or, on the contrary, reject them and develop new forms. But even by this act of rejection, the new school is actually conditioned by the old. Moreover, it frequently happens that, in its search for something new, the artist will revert to earlier forms. Styles that were apparently extinct make a reappearance, as when Renaissance Europe rediscovered the art of ancient Greece, or the artists of the French Revolution rediscovered classicism. Nearer our own times, Picasso's early Cubist experiments reflect the influence of African tribal art, while the rhythms of Africa brought to America hundreds of years ago by black slaves forms the basis of modern jazz and "pop" music in all its forms.

Partisanship in literature

"I am by no means opposed to partisanship in poetry as such," wrote Engels. "Both Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller's Kabale and Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose. I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes." (Marx and Engels, On Art and Literature, p. 88.)

There is such a thing as committed art. In many cases artists and writers feel passionately involved in the subject matter of their art. This applies especially to the greatest art, which is inevitably connected in one way or another to the big questions, the questions of life and death which move the lives and thoughts of millions. What Engels warned against was the debasement of such art to mere empty pamphleteering. A great message can be present in a work of art, but it must not be something imposed from without. It must emerge naturally from the subject matter itself. In Lev Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina we have a powerful indictment of the treatment of women in society, as well as a searing criticism of the soulless nature of tsarist bureaucratic and serf society. Yet the message is not imposed from without or tacked on arbitrarily at the end. It emerges with extraordinary force from the narrative itself. Moreover, Tolstoy's characters are not mere ciphers but living men and women who strike us both as real flesh and blood and at the same time typical characters representing specific individual types.

This is committed art. There is also what we might call didactic art, which more clearly sets out to deliver a message and "educate" us. This we see in the worst examples of so-called Socialist Realism. This almost always fails because art is not very suited to this purpose. For that we have politics and philosophy. Finally, there is propaganda. Propaganda is not generally considered to be art at all, or in the best case is seen as a very inferior form of art. Even here there can be exceptions. The best poster art of the period immediately following the Russian revolution can be accepted as an art form that derives from the Russian Constructivist school. In general, however, propaganda is mainly interested in delivering a message that is entirely external to the art-form utilised. Thus the element of artistic expression is secondary. It is a convenient peg upon which the message is hung. From such a medium great art is unlikely to flow.

It is also clearly absurd to judge art from the standpoint of an entirely different intellectual discipline, such as philosophy or politics, in the same way that one would not judge nuclear physics from the standpoint of sociology or psychology. A work of philosophy may be written in a good literary style; it may or may not move us to tears or laughter. But that is not its primary function. Philosophy appeals primarily to the intellect; art and literature appeal fundamentally to our emotions.

Plekhanov, polemicising against Tolstoy, insisted that art does not only appeal to the emotions but also to the mind. In a general sense, that is correct but it misses the point. The question we must ask is: what is essential and what is non-essential in art and literature? It is true that some works of literature, arguably the greatest ones, also appeal to the mind and contain profound philosophical ideas. Shakespearean tragedy is the best example. But one should not judge art from the standpoint of philosophy, or philosophy from the standpoint of art. A good philosopher may have a poor style. But a writer with a bad style is just a bad writer and nothing else, however correct his or her philosophical ideas. And if we are to judge art and literature on the grounds of “political correctness”, we would be left with very slim pickings indeed! No, literature and art must be judged according to their own inherent laws and essence, and not from external considerations which fall outside the scope of art proper.

Does this mean that the artist and writer is therefore relieved of the onerous burden of thinking? Or that they are somehow outside of time and space, deriving their own concepts freely from their independent imaginations? Merely to pose the question is to answer it. Nowhere and at no time have artists and writers stood outside or above society. They are consciously or unconsciously moulded by the general tendencies in society. In class society this means that they fall under the influence of one or another of the contending classes. Of course, the influence is rarely simple or direct. Nor does it follow that an artist or writer who has adopted a conservative or even reactionary standpoint necessarily produces bad art. One of Marx’s favourite writers was the great French realist novelist Balzac. His voluminous Commedie Humaine contains a very precise description of French society in the early years of the 19th century, and in particular a detailed portrait of the rise of a new social type -the French bourgeois. In a political sense, Balzac’s sympathies were with the old French nobles, and in that sense he was a conservative. But so great was his artistic genius, and so truthful was his depiction of these processes, that he was compelled to go beyond his own standpoint. As Engels wrote:

“Balzac was thus compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and describes them people deserving no better fate.” (Marx and Engels, On Art and Literature, p. 92.)

Trotsky’s writings on art and literature

Of all the great Marxist thinkers, Trotsky was the one who showed the most lively interest in art, including modern art. His works on the subject include Culture and Socialism, Art and Revolution, and above all his book Literature and Revolution, which we reproduce here in full. All these works were written after the Revolution. But in fact, his writings on art and literature go back a long way before then. As a young man he wrote articles on Ibsen and Gogol. Before the First World War he wrote a lot about what were then the latest trends in art, such as Impressionism:

"Naturalism transcended itself and became Impressionism, which did not at all give up its fidelity to nature and its truth to life, but on the contrary, precisely in the name of this truth, in its eternally changing forms, and demanded freedom for the truth of subjective perception. Whilst the old academic style said 'here are the rules (or images) according to which nature must be depicted', and naturalism said 'here is nature', then Impressionism said 'here is how I see nature'. But this 'I' of Impressionism is a new personality in new circumstances, but with a new nervous system, with new eyes, a modern person, and that is why this painting is modernism, not fashionable painting, but modern, contemporary, emerging from contemporary perception." (Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary History, vol. 7, No. 2, Porcupine Press, London 1999, p. 102.)

Here is what he wrote about the sculpture of Rodin: "Classical sculpture," wrote Trotsky, "reproduced the human body in a state of harmonious peace. Renaissance sculpture mastered the art of movement. But Michelangelo used movement to express the body's harmony more vividly. Rodin, on the other hand, made movement itself the subject of the sculpture. In Michelangelo the body creates for itself its own individual movement, whereas in Rodin, on the contrary, movement finds for itself the body it needs." (Op. cit., p. 80.)

In the 1930s he showed a great interest in surrealism, in which he detected a revolutionary element. In general, Trotsky understood the need of the artist for complete freedom: freedom to experiment with new forms and ideas, freedom to fight against stifling routine and conservatism. As early as 1913 he wrote: "Modernism in painting, which was accused by representatives of the old academic piety of malicious far-fetchedness and false mannerism was, in fact, a life-giving protest against the old style which had outlived itself and turned into a pose." (Ibid.)

The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in 1908: "One cannot always be carrying one's father's body about. One leaves it to the company of the other dead. One remembers and regrets him, one speaks of him with admiration. And on becoming oneself a father one must not expect one of our children to burden himself perpetually with our corpse." And again: "Truth will always be new." This is exactly in line with Trotsky’s views. However, while defending the artist’s right to freedom, Trotsky always opposed the kind of artistic snobbery which conceals its poverty behind a veil of mysticism: "...mystical self-elevation above the world actually means reconciling oneself with what exists, in all its ugliness." Such art "grovels in the dirt, but against what is real, actual, in other words against mankind itself, in its future victories, against mankind's great tomorrow!" (59)

Trotsky attempted to establish points of contact between the artist and the revolutionary movement, to convince the artists and writers that in order to become free, art must become revolutionary - must fight for the emancipation of all of humanity. From this point of view, the sterile (and essentially empty) notion of “art for art’s sake” played a negative role. The separation of art from life has reached such an extreme that the contradiction cries out to be resolved. But this contradiction cannot be resolved within the narrow limits of art itself, but only on the broader canvass of the struggle of living men and women to transform society, and in the process to change themselves.

In 1908 Trotsky wrote the following prophetic lines: "You see, visiting art exhibitions is a terrible act of violence that we perpetrate on ourselves. This way of experiencing artistic pleasure expresses a terrible barracks-capitalist barbarism [...] Let's take a landscape, for example. What is it? A piece of nature, arbitrarily amputated, that has been framed and hung on a wall. Between these elements, nature, the canvas, the frame and the wall, a purely mechanical relation exists: the picture cannot be infinite, for tradition and practical considerations have condemned it to be square. So that it should not crease or buckle, it is framed, and so that it should not lie on the floor, people hammer a nail in a wall, fix a cord onto it, and hang up the picture by this cord. Then, when all the walls are covered in pictures, sometimes arranged in two or three rows, people call this an art gallery or exhibition. And then we are forced to swallow all this in one gulp: landscapes, genre scenes, frames, cord and nails...

"But what I want painting to renounce is its absolutism and re-establish its organic link with architecture and sculpture, from which it has long been detached. This separation did not happen by accident, oh no! From that time, painting has undertaken a very long and instructive journey. It has conquered landscape, has become inwardly mobile and intimate, and has developed an astounding technique. But now, enriched with all thee gifts, it must go back to its mother's bosom, architecture... I want paintings to be connected not by cords but by their artistic significance to walls or to a cupola, to the purpose of a building, to the character of a room...and not hanging like a hat on a hat stand. Picture galleries, those concentration camps for colours and beauty, serve but as a monstrous appendage to our colourless and unsightly daily reality." (Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky, p. 67-8.)

The emancipation of humanity could only be achieved by revolutionary means. In 1917 the workers and peasants of Russia carried out the first socialist revolution in history under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

Art and October

"Neither science nor literature could then serve as the stepping stone to a career. We were born into bourgeois times but were set free by the unselfishness of the revolution which raised us high and made us think again.' (Victor Shklovsky)

The October revolution was the most liberating event in human history. While the leading role was played by the working class, the revolution attracted to its ranks all that was alive and progressive in Russian society. The best representatives of the intellectuals fought shoulder to shoulder with the masses. There was a new spirit in the air that galvanised and electrified. Here was more than sufficient inspiration for the writer and artist. When all is said and done, no work of art can adequately convey the epic quality and high drama of the revolution itself-the struggle of millions of ordinary men and women for their social emancipation. Life itself, when it rises to such heights, is infinitely richer and more moving than art. But the desire to express the emotions aroused by such electrifying events gives rise to art of a very special character.

In contrast to the drabness and conformity that is the chief hallmark of Stalinist "socialist realism", the art that emerged from the October revolution was an outpouring of a free spirit. Revolutions are always highly voluble. The masses, so long compelled to submit in silence, suddenly find their voice. There is a flood of speech, of street corner oratory, of questioning and discussion everywhere: in the streets, in the factories, in the army barracks. Suddenly, society becomes alive. This new spirit of freedom and experiment inevitably found its mirror-image in art and literature. The revolution immediately set about making art available to the masses. The big art collections, such as the Tretyakovsky gallery and the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were nationalised.

The Revolution attracted to its side many of the most talented artists and writers. On the first anniversary of the October Revolution, the actress and social activist Maria Andreyeva pronounced the following words: "The October Revolution is the greatest event in the history of the world. It is the victory and the holiday of the proletariat, it is a joy and a firm bright belief in its final triumph. But the battle is not yet finished. Our blood and that of others still flows, and a holiday, it seems to us, should therefore be serious and austere. After all, there is still a proletariat, and there is still capital...." Great poets like Alexander Blok, the celebrated Symbolist, sang the praises of the revolution in The Twelve and The Sythians. True, Blok's understanding of the revolution is on a very primitive level. But the desire of the petit bourgeois to identify with the revolution was both healthy and progressive. With every fibre of his being, Blok strove to unite his art with the movement of the masses for emancipation:

"We Russians are living through an epoch which has few equals in epic scale... An artist's job is to see what is conceived, to hear that music with which 'the air torn by the wind' resounds...

"What then is conceived?

"To redo everything. To arrange things so that everything becomes new; so that the false, the dirty, dull, ugly life which is ours becomes just life, pure, gay, beautiful....

"Peace and the brotherhood of nations"-that is the banner beneath which the Russian Revolution is taking place. For this its torrent thunders on. This is the music which they who have no ears to hear must hear...

"With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution."

These lines were written by Blok in 1918 in his article The Intelligentsia and the Revolution. These were the years of storm and stress, the heroic period when the Revolution was in full flood tide, and had not yet begun to ebb. "Eternal battle," wrote Blok, "of peace we only dream." Such times demand a particular kind of poetry, not that of love-affairs and roses, but the poetry of steel that calls men and women to battle. The art and literature of October perfectly reflects this mood. It is heroic poetry on the grand scale, but it is aimed, not at a minority of people, but at the masses engaged in a titanic life-and-death struggle.

Mayakovsky, “the drummer-boy of the revolution”, also came into his own. In 1918 he wrote Left March:

Rally the ranks into a march!

Now's no time to quibble or browse there.

Silence, you orators!


Have the floor

Comrade Mauser.

Enough of living by laws

that Adam and Eve have left.

Hustle old history's horse.




Ahoy, blue jackets!

Cleave skywards!

Beyond the oceans!


your battleships on the roads

blunted their keels fighting keenness!

Baring the teeth of his crown,

let the lion of Britain whine, gale-heft,

The Commune can never go down.





beyond sorrow's seas

sunlit lands unchartered.

Beyond hunger,

beyond plague's dark peaks,

tramps the march of millions!

Let armies of hirelings ambush us,

streaming cold steel through every rift.

L'Entente can't conquer the Russians.




Does the eye of the eagle fade?

Shall we stare back to the old?

Proletarian fingers

grip tighter

the throat of the world:

Chests out! Shoulders straight!

Stick to the sky red flags adrift!

Who is marching there with the right?




All poetry loses in translation, and none more so than that of Mayakovsky, which should be declaimed in Russian. But even in translation, the power of these verses still thrusts its way through. This poetry, with its mixture of striking imagery, muscular rhythms and hyperbole, perfectly conveys the spirit of plebeian revolt. It captures the mood and the accents of the time. No wonder it struck a responsive chord among people who had never read a line of poetry in their lives. It is the poetry of the Revolution.

No less than the poets and writers, the artists of the Revolution produced works of a very high quality and an extraordinary variety of styles, often striking in their originality, but all created around the central theme of revolutionary struggle. Alexander Blok wrote: "Even while destroying, we are still the slaves of our former world: the violation of tradition itself is part of that same tradition..." Some of these "fellow travellers" soon became disillusioned with the hardships of Soviet life and went abroad. Others became openly hostile. The poet Gumilyov was on the side of the Whites (he had predicted his own death in a poem entitled Rabochii, "The Workman"). But many first-rate artists and writers were genuinely sympathetic and even enthusiastic about the revolution, much like the poets like Wordsworth and Shelley who greeted the French Revolution.

A galaxy of artists

The revolution provided an abundance of material for the artist. In the words of Mayakovsky, "the colours of humdrum life were painted over once and for all." A galaxy of artists arose in the white-heat of the Revolution: Marc Chagall, Larionov, Tatlin, Malevich, Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Isaac Brodsky, Vladimir Lebedev, Mitrofan Grekov, Sergei Konionov, Matvei Mantzer, and also quite a few women artists like Vera Mukhina.

After October the people began to participate in new forms of street art: mass demonstrations and street performances. These phenomena reproduce the experience of the mass festivities of the French Revolution. Lenin himself showed a lively interest in all those artistic forms that could involve the masses, including so-called "monumental propaganda". Lenin discussed with Lunacharsky the idea of erecting monuments to the great revolutionaries of the past. He also showed a great concern with helping artists in need.

Diderot considered that the Muse of sculpture was "silent and elusive". But the revolutionary monuments of the Revolution were anything but that. Among the new monuments we have such works as Victor Sinaisky's sculpture of Lassale, Konionkov's Stepan Razin and his Men, and Tatlin's impressive and imaginative Tower-Monument to the Third International, which was never built and exists only in a model of wood and wire. It was intended to be a gigantic tower of glass and metal which would dwarf the world's highest skyscraper. Here we have a graphic expression of the unconquerable spirit and uncompromising internationalism of October. Mikhail Guerman writes:

"Art led a feverish existence. In April 1919, artists of many different schools and trends-from the Wanderers (members of the Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions) to the World of Art group-staged an enormous exhibition in the Winter palace. More than three thousand works were displayed. As early as the autumn of 1917, an Appeal of the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' deputies stated: ‘Citizens, our former masters have gone away, leaving a huge legacy behind them. It now belongs to all the people. Citizens, take good care of this legacy, all these pictures, statues and buildings. They embody your and your forefathers' spiritual strength’." (Art of the October Revolution, compiled by Mikhail Guerman, p. 17.)

"The poster," adds Mikhail Guerman, "stimulated thought, expressed indignation, bubbled over with enthusiasm, provoked laughter, responded to events on the instant, and communicated news without delay. Posters were drawn at night, to be pasted up on the streets in the morning. Although the sheets were devised with the knowledge that their life was but a day, in the history of art they have lasted down the years. They have lasted not merely as witnesses of great events, but also because of their great and rigorous perfection." (p. 76.)

This is art that communicates immediately. It is art that has something to say: "As soon as telegrams came in (for newspapers waiting to go to press), poets and journalists would immediately give out 'themes'-a biting piece of satire, a line of verse. Throughout the night artists would mess about on the floor over huge sheets of paper, and in the morning, often before the first newspapers appeared, posters-satirical windows-would be hung up in the places where people most often gathered: agit-centres, stations, markets, etc. The posters were enormous, three metres square, amny coloured, and always attracted even someone running past. The first 'poster department', with Cheremnykh as its head, opened branches in Petersburg, Kharkov, Rostov-on-Don, Baku, right down to the smallest towns..." (Op. cit. p. 36.)

With their freshness and immediacy, these agitprop posters have every right to be considered as genuine art. If it is "pop-art", then it is of the highest category. Agitprop acquired new and genuinely artistic forms with the posters of Mayakovsky, Dmitri Moor, Mikhail Cheremnykh and a host of others, many of whose names are now lost, though their art survives. The theatre also attained new heights with the work of such geniuses as Meyerhold and Mayakovsky. These writers and artists had an insatiable desire for the new, a hunger for innovation that equally reflected the spirit of these inspiring times. At times this tendency gave rise to excesses, but then what revolution does not give rise to excesses? This was a period of extremes, reflecting the nature of the times: "It is easiest, of course, to recognise polar opposites, for instance, 'figurative' and 'non-figurative' art," writes Mikhail Guerman. "In this period, however, there was no place for 'middle-of-the-road' art. Indifferent art was therefore alienated art."

This period also produced notable novels, such as Chapayev by Dmitri Furmanov, who had been political commissar in Chapayev's celebrated partisans. Isaak Babel's remarkable Red Cavalry represents the high-water mark of the prose-writing of the 1920s in Soviet Russia. But all this marvellous potential was crushed by the Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution in the USSR.

Trotsky and Proletkult

"Proletarian culture must consist of the logical development of the knowledge that mankind gained under the yoke of capitalist society, under the yoke of the landlords and bureaucrats." (Lenin)

The Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky guaranteed the maximum freedom of artistic expression, while striving to win over the writers and artists to the standpoint of Communism. This tradition lasted for a few years after Lenin’s death. On July 1, 1925 the Central Committee passed a resolution on the policy of the Party towards literature, which says among other things: "Communist criticism must ban any tone of commandism. It will have a profound educational result only if it proceeds on the basis of its ideological superiority. It must resolutely ban any pretentious communist conceitedness and smug self-satisfaction. It must learn..." Furthermore, the Party declares itself in favour of the free emulation of literary schools, "any other decision would necessarily be bureaucratic". The Party refuses to grant to any group whatsoever a monopoly of publication rights. "To confer such a monopoly even to the most proletarian literature because of its ideas would be to kill all literature." It moreover proclaims the necessity to "put an end to all arbitrary and incompetent administrative interference in literature". At the same time the Party calls on writers to break with aristocratic prejudices and place at the disposal of the masses the acquisitions of the great masters." (Quoted in Victor Serge, Littérature et Révolution, pp. 50-1.)

However, the acceptance of freedom did not signify an abstentionist position in relation to harmful trends and erroneous theories, such as the so-called theory of “proletarian culture”, against which Trotsky polemicised in Literature and Revolution.

The idea of "proletarian art" originated not in Russia but in France, where in 1913 Marcel Martinet published the article entitled "L'Art Proletarien" in the magazine L'Effort Libre. Even before this the old anarchist Charles Albert had already invented the term "proletarian art". The origins of this concept lie therefore not in Marxism but in anarchism, and suffers from all the crude and confused one-sidedness characteristic of anarchist thought in general. The primitive revolutionism that argues that the working class must destroy all vestiges of the old class society may appeal to immature minds but lacks any real scientific basis. On the contrary, as Trotsky explains, in order to transform society it is necessary that the working class should first master all the knowledge, art, science and administrative skills of the old society, should thoroughly digest it in order to overcome and surpass it.

Martinet takes as his starting point the celebrated phrase of Marx: "The emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves." But these words of Marx-profoundly true words-by no means implied that the working class in its struggle for socialism should dispense with the cultural weapons which had been forged by the bourgeoisie. Far from it. Marx and Engels themselves (is it necessary to explain?) were not members of the working class but came from the bourgeois intelligentsia. They broke decisively from their class and placed themselves on the standpoint of the proletariat. Their writings penetrated the essence of the capitalist system and the nature of the exploitation of the working class. In order to do this, they based themselves on the most advanced thought of the greatest thinkers produced by class society: German classical philosophy, English classical economics and French utopian socialism. It is true that socialism bases itself on the enormous revolutionary creativity of the working class. This can and does work miracles. But even the greatest miracles of the proletariat could never have thrown up the three volumes of Capital. To ask for such a thing would be, as the Spanish say, to expect pears from an elm-tree.

Under the guise of adoring the proletariat, the anarchists in fact only display a petit-bourgeois contempt for the proletariat. They deny its ability to understand "complicated" ideas and theories. The ridiculous pose that raises ignorance to the status of a "proletarian" medal and worships backwardness and the lack of culture has nothing in common with a truly proletarian mentality or with Marxism, which bases itself on the most advanced elements in the class, not the most backward. After all, the working class has a face and the working class has a backside. It is the sad fate of the anarchists to eternally contemplate the rear parts of the working class. By appealing to the most backward prejudices of the class, they will never help to raise it to the level of the tasks posed by history.

The movement for "proletarian culture" sprang up during the harsh years of the Civil War. After 1920 the members of these organisations numbered about 400,000. They published 15 different journals. In one way this was a positive development. But in general it suffered from the immaturity that characterised many aspects of the thinking of the period. Whole new layers were aroused by the October revolution from their old habits of somnolence and passivity. Minds were opened to new ideas. A spirit of experimentation predominated. Not all these experiments, however, were successful. Mixed up with a few precious specs of gold was a rather large amount of dross. To separate out the one from the other was a necessary task. But to determine what was genuinely of value and to establish new artistic criteria in consonance with the new social and cultural reality established by the Revolution, what was needed was experience and free debate. The idea that art and literature could somehow be dragooned and disciplined was entirely alien to the young workers' state with its spirit of revolutionary democracy. Lenin and particularly Trotsky tried to convince by argument, but it never crossed their mind that the Party should impose its will by force or coercion of any kind.

Russia at the time of the Revolution was an illiterate country. The great majority of the population were peasants, most of whom could neither read nor write. Even among town workers the rate of illiteracy was 30 per cent. The main efforts of the Bolsheviks were therefore aimed at the basic tasks of abolishing illiteracy and backwardness. In this context it was necessary for the proletariat to absorb and assimilate the best of the culture of the old society. The shrill propaganda of the supporters of so-called Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) who demanded a radical break with the past and the creation of an entirely new “proletarian” culture owing little or nothing to the bourgeois past was not helpful and introduced confusion where clarity was most necessary.

The leading proponent of “proletarian culture” was Bogdanov, the former ultra-left Bolshevik who had broken with Lenin after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, not only on political questions but also on Marxist philosophy. Lenin’s position, reflected in the quote reproduced above, was identical with Trotsky’s: namely, that the working class must master all that is best in bourgeois culture in order to raise itself to the level of the task of transforming society along socialist lines. Along the way, a new socialist culture will emerge. But by this time, the proletariat will have ceased to exist as a class. The theory of proletarian culture thus lacks any real scientific basis.

Trotsky, with his brilliant style and masterly use of the dialectic, tackled the Soviet artists and writers on their own terrain and answered them in their own language. In this way, he consolidated the authority of the Bolsheviks and the October revolution and helped to attract the best of the artists and writers to the revolutionary cause. Bureaucratic bullying and hectoring did not enter into it, much less administrative violence.

Stalinism and art

"Social being determines consciousness." These words are the ABC of historical materialism. In general the world of culture will forever remain a book sealed by seven seals as long as the majority of men and women are compelled to toil long hours under unbearable conditions to obtain the necessities of life. In the heat of the revolution and immediately after, the workers of Russia were too absorbed in the pressing tasks of winning the war and physical survival to pay much attention to cultural questions.

The isolation of the revolution in conditions of frightful backwardness created exceptional difficulties. Many workers fled from the cities to obtain food to stay alive. Victor Shklovsky writes: "The city [Petrograd] was empty. The streets had grown so wide that it seemed as if a river of cobblestones were lapping at the banks of the houses." But then he added: "The city lived. It burned with the red flame of the Revolution". (The Art of October, p. 21.) Only with the introduction of the NEP did the revolution obtain a short breathing space which permitted a greater interest in things like art and literature. But by this time, the process of bureaucratic degeneration had already commenced.

The revolutionary artists who emerged from October were able to base themselves on a very rich tradition. Here was the influence of French Cubists and Italian futurists. Symbolists, Futurists, Constructivists, Proletkult and a myriad of other schools vied with each other in a bewildering array of artistic variety. Even before the Revolution Russia was already a hotbed of artistic invention, experiment and avant-guardism. Their way had been paved by Russian pre-revolutionary artists such as Valentin Serov, Mikhail Vrubel and Victor Borisov-Musatov, who had experimented with exciting new art forms. A passionate search for the truth motivated these Soviet artists, and although the results were often uneven, there is a kind of fearless honesty and integrity about all of them. This was a priceless tradition which could have been built upon. Only in recent years has this remarkable period of art been given the attention it undoubtedly deserves, both in Russia and in the West. Yet this beautiful flower was trampled in the dust by the Stalinist political counter-revolution.

The launching of the AARR (the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia) represented the first move of the Bureaucracy to "establish order", that is to establish its control over the artists and writers of the Soviet Republic. The budding Soviet bureaucrat, conservative and unimaginative in art as in all other matters, looked with distrust and suspicion on the new experimental schools of painting and writing. His attitude to this "chaos" was the other side to his reaction to the storm and stress of the Revolution itself. The idea of "socialism in one country" was only the theoretical expression of this petit-bourgeois reaction against October.

So-called Socialist Realism was in effect the art of the bureaucracy. Pictures of "heroic workers" and happy collective farmers, all done in a traditional representational style, similar to what is known in the West as chocolate box painting. Ernst Fischer, the noted Austrian Marxist art critic, once described Socialist Realism as "the artist's or writer's fundamental agreement with the aims of the working class and the emerging socialist world". But this description is very far from the truth. Needless to say, the Soviet workers were never consulted about the official doctrine of art-or anything else. Such art was neither realistic nor socialist. It did not convey the reality of life in the Soviet Union, but only a saccharine utopia corresponding to the dreams and delusions of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Bolshevism and Stalinism are mutually exclusive opposites. In the same way that Stalin had to murder all the Old Bolsheviks in order to consolidate the rule of a privileged bureaucracy, so in the realm of art, music and literature, the Stalinist counter-revolution left not one stone upon another of the artistic gains of the October revolution. The chief intellectual hallmark of the bureaucrat is conservative philistinism, national narrowness, total lack of imagination, an aversion to innovation and experiment, and a strong tendency towards conformity and control. After all, conservative routine is the guiding principle of every bureaucracy. Rules and regulations take the place of revolutionary initiative: the routinism of the apparatus replaces the freedom of the innovator. The Revolution succumbs to reaction, the philistine replaces the rebel. On such a barren soil, the promise of early Soviet art is slowly suffocated and throttled. The suicide of Mayakovsky in 1930 is a clear turning-point. His suicide note an epitaph on the tomb of revolutionary art.

Under Stalin art and literature were made to serve the interests of the ruling bureaucratic caste, just like every other aspect of life. Totalitarianism and bureaucracy represent the death of art. The Nazis used to forbid certain artists to work and ban their work as "degenerate art". An exhibition of such art was set up in Munich, presenting abstract and constructivist art as "total madness and the height of degeneracy". In Stalinist Russia, although the bureaucracy did not succeed in destroying the nationalized planned economy - the fundamental socio-economic conquest of October, the democratic regime of workers’ power established by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 was replaced by a hideous caricature, which blighted the development of Soviet art and literature. Bureaucracy, with its inevitable consequences of toadyism, conformism and red tape, undermines all creative thought and action. This is the very antithesis of the democratic traditions of October. It has nothing whatsoever in common with socialism.

The class basis of culture

The fall of the USSR has forced many people to rethink their basic positions. Naturally, the bourgeoisie has taken advantage of the confusion to launch an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism. But in fact the capitalist system is in a deep crisis that affects all aspects of culture.

The culture of class society has a class basis. Marx and Engels explained that the dominant ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. In The German Ideology we read: "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has at its disposal the means of material production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it." (p. 70.)

The capitalist class control the schools and universities, the printing presses, the Churches, the advertising industry, the bookshops and publishers, the recording studios, the big record companies and sales outlets, the theatres and concert halls, the radio, cinema and television. They pay the salaries of writers, newspaper editors and artists and decide who will work and who will not. Thus, behind the hypocritical mask of formal democracy, the rulers of society exercise an iron dictatorship -the dictatorship of wealth.

To the capitalist class, art is no less a source of profit than any other branch of production. Moreover, it is a particularly lucrative branch. A painting can raise millions of dollars on the London art market. And most of these works of art, part of the priceless heritage of humanity, are subsequently locked up in a bank vault or buried in the private collection of some wealthy miser who can gloat over his possessions - not for their own sake but as a speculative investment. At this point all pretences are mercilessly stripped away. Art as a commodity is no different to any other commodity. Its value is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour spent on its production (and it is well known that a work of art can take a long time to produce), but its price will be finally determined in the market place on the basis of the laws of supply and demand.

Here a painting by Rubens or Velazquez is reduced to the same value as so much sugar, oil or underpants. Only its scarcity value and the speculative mania that drives the bourgeois to seek out commodities that will hold their value, or better still increase it, sets them aside as something out of the ordinary. Here fortunes are made out of works of art produced by artists, many of whom lived much or all of their lives in poverty and hardship. As for the purchaser, he or she may be an art expert or a complete ignoramus, may derive great aesthetic pleasure from their possession, or be utterly indifferent to it. This is a matter of complete indifference, since the work of art is possessed not for itself, but only as a piece of merchandise for the purpose of speculation. What is here worshipped is not the work of art, but only abstract value. This is the only real art and religion of the market place.

Capital is hostile to art. It confronts it as an alien force which dominates and oppresses it, twisting it into all manner of grotesque expressions. It is only a specific manifestation of the alienation that blights and distorts all human life and relations under capitalism. On such barren ground as this, art and artistic expression can never flourish, can never raise itself up to its true (that is, human) stature.

This domination and oppression gives rise to a spirit of rebellion and protest among artists, not only the underprivileged majority struggling to make their voice heard (and surely among these there are a great many with something to say?), but also some of those (a minority, unfortunately) who have "made it" but have not forgotten where they came from and have not yet sold their soul to the devil. This protest can take many forms. From the anarchistic protest of the Sex Pistols ("God save the Queen, the fascist regime") to the more conscious revolutionary lyrics of John Lennon, probably the best representative of this trend who was moving in the direction of revolutionary Trotskyism when he was tragically murdered, apparently by a deranged individual.

Of course, the big monopolies that control our lives can tolerate such protest within certain limits. It can even be useful as a harmless safety valve that allows young people to "blow off steam", while preserving the rule of the exploiters. They have a thousand ways of corrupting and buying off youthful protesters, just as they buy parliamentarians. Once the successful artist or musician is incorporated into the world of the rich and famous, he or she can usually be relied upon to toe the line, tone down the protests, "mellow with age", in short, join the ranks of the exploiters. When some people prove resistant to this treatment, they find themselves excluded, doors which were open are slammed shut, and they slide into failure and oblivion. 

The protest of artists and musicians against capitalism and the values of the market (more accurately, the values of the jungle) still continue. A recent article in BusinessWeek pointed out that many young musicians in the USA were protesting against the suffocating control of the big monopolies over the world of music which prevents them from getting access to recording companies.

This is just another indication that capitalism, especially in its modern phase of senile monopoly capitalism, is antagonistic to art, and that the best and most conscious of the artists must enter into conflict with it. To the degree that this consciousness attains the understanding that their problems cannot be resolved within the framework of capitalist society, that their alienation is only a particular manifestation of the general alienation of the working class under capitalism and that, in order to succeed in overthrowing the existing order, it is necessary to unite with the struggles of the working class.

No future for art under capitalism

Art has played a most important role in human society, practically since the birth of our species. This role will not only continue, but be greatly enhanced under socialism, when art will lose its special, exclusive character and become the possession of all. In the second place, there is no way out for art under capitalism.

Under capitalism the worker is not considered as a human being with human tastes and needs. For the bourgeois he is a mere abstraction: a “factory hand”, a “factor of production” or a “consumer”. This is the modern equivalent of the slave who in Roman times was referred to as instrumentum vocale -a tool with a voice. Thus the worker is taught to be satisfied with his lot, to accept bad housing, to eat junk food, to live on ugly and run down housing estates, to listen to bad music, to read trashy newspapers. Not only that, he must lean to love these things and to believe that there is nothing better in life. For a long time this tactic, akin to brainwashing can succeed. After all, there were Roman slaves and Russian serfs who learned to love their chains. But sooner or later, the slaves move to break their chains - not only the physical ones but the mental ones also. They begin to understand that they are being condemned to a less than human existence, and choose the life of free men and women. The elements of this revolt can be seen in every strike. And a revolution is like a strike of the whole of society against the slave-owners.

This is how Marx describes the alienation that denies a human existence to the majority of society:

“He [the economist] turns the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need -be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity- seems to him a luxury. Political economy, this science of wealth, is therefore simultaneously the science of renunciation, of want, of saving -and it actually reaches the point where it spares man the need of either fresh air or physical exercise. This science of marvellous industry is simultaneously the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave. Its moral ideal is the worker who takes part of his wages to the savings-bank, and it has even found ready-made a servile art which embodies this pet idea: it has been presented, bathed in sentimentality, on the stage. Thus political economy -despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance- is a true moral science, the most moral of all sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save -the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour-your capital.” (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, from Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3 Moscow, 1975, pp. 308-9.)

In class society, art is so designed as to exclude the masses, and relegate them to an impoverished existence, not only in a material but in a spiritual sense. In Roman times we had “bread and circuses”; now we have soap opera and pop music. Commercial art which sets out from the lowest common denominator is at once a useful soporific drug intended to keep the masses in a state of stupified contentment, while at the same time making a few capitalists exceedingly rich. By thus reducing the artistic level of society to a bare minimum, and increasingly alienating the “serious arts” from social reality, capitalism guarantees a continuous degeneration and pauperisation of art in general. Confined to this rarified atmosphere, where it is obliged to feed off itself in the same way that factory-fed cows and chickens are fed the dead carcasses of other animals, and develop a deadly brain disease as a result, art becomes ever more sterile, empty and meaningless, so that even the artists themselves begin to sense the decay and become ever more restless and discontented. Their discontent, however, can lead nowhere insofar as it is not linked to the struggle for an alternative form of society in which art can find its way back to humanity. The solution to art’s problems is not to be found in art, but only in society.

The spiritual apartheid which excludes the masses from culture and the impoverishment of culture itself are two sides of the same coin: they are only manifestations of the alienation imposed on the human race by capitalism. Just as the worker’s product is alienated from him by the capitalist and confronts him as a hostile power (Capital), so do the riches of art and culture appear to him as something strange and alien. The extreme division between mental and manual labour shuts off the majority of humanity from culture which appears to them what it essentially is: the monopoly of the privileged few. As long as this monopoly continues to exist, so long will society be divided by an abysm. The task of socialism is to break down once and for all the Chinese Wall separating mental and manual labour, giving free access to culture to all, and thus opening up a vast reservoir of talent and creative potential that has so long been blocked and destroyed.

As Marx explained in one of his earliest works: “Only through the objectively unfolded riches of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form -in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.) in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.” (K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in MECW, vol., 3, pp. 301-2.)

Today, despite the so-called freedom of the press, that much-vaunted hallmark of bourgeois democracy, the few daily papers that exist are rigidly controlled by a handful of media billionaires and their content is mainly garbage. This is said to be because Big Business "gives the public what it wants". In reality, Capital gives the public what it thinks they should have. A steady diet of pap, of sex, sport and scandal, with a minimum of politics and culture, neatly tailored to the requirements of the bankers and capitalists. It is the modern equivalent of "bread and circuses". For even in slave society, bread alone was never sufficient to keep the masses in a state of obedient stupor. That is the sole function of the so-called popular culture. The situation of television is three-parts the same. Here we have a sorry spectacle of cultural and moral bankruptcy. A poverty of ideas, a total lack of any originality and content, capable of producing only a sense of tedium and disgust in any minimally cultivated mind. It is an insult to the people's intelligence.

In its revolutionary youth the bourgeoisie played a progressive role in pushing back the horizons of human culture. In its period of senile decay, the bourgeoisie is engaged in the wholesale destruction of culture. It lacks any broad horizon, any deep philosophy or vision of the future. Its entire being is centred on money-grubbing in its narrowest and most repulsive sense. It is as if the bourgeoisie has suffered a collective childhood regression to the primitive stage of the primitive accumulation of capital. Narrowness as a condition of existence and stinginess as the only moral virtue.

The new universal war-cry of "tax reduction" signifies government cuts which undermine even those elements of a semi-human existence that were so painfully wrested from the ruling class in the past. Schools, concert halls, theatres, public libraries, all fall under the axe. It reminds one forcibly of Goering's celebrated phrase: "When I hear the word 'Culture', I reach for my revolver."

Only when society breaks the suffocating stranglehold of rent, interest and profit, will the material conditions begin to be created for the attainment of genuine freedom, for the free development of human beings. Art and science require freedom in order to develop. That means that they are ultimately incompatible with dictatorship-including the dictatorship of Money.

Revolution - the locomotive of history

Revolution in general acts as the locomotive of history. This profound observation of Leon Trotsky applies not just to the development of the productive forces but equally to that of culture in its most general sense. The Reformation gave rise not only to modern democracy but also to a flowering of culture. Luther himself virtually invented the modern German language single-handed and was the author of numerous poems, which, given the nature of the period, necessarily had the form of hymns, among which was the celebrated Ein Feste Burg, which Engels described as the Marseillese of the middle ages. The sublime poetry of Milton in England reflected not only the war between Heaven and Hell, but also the revolutionary war between Puritans and Monarchists. The English Revolution itself produced an immense popular literature in the form of books and pamphlets, notably the outstanding polemical works of Gerald Winstanley. Later, in the 18th century the road to the Great French Revolution was paved by the Enlightenment.

The October Revolution also produced a great outpouring of art and literature, which was later crushed, like so much else, by the leaden rump of Stalinist political counter-revolution. Nowadays, the bourgeois critics of October like to portray the Bolsheviks as bloodthirsty monsters, bent on the destruction of all civilised human values. They attempt to identify the art of the Revolution with the stilted Bureaucratic art of Stalinist "Socialist Realism." This comparison has just about as much validity as the comparison between the political regime of Stalinist totalitarianism and the workers' democracy of the regime of Lenin and Trotsky. This crude slander bears no relation to the truth.

The years immediately after October released the colossal pent-up creative potential of the Russian people-not just the working people, but also the best layers of the intelligentsia True, a certain layer could not adapt, and some even took up a hostile attitude. The innate conservatism of the human mind does not only apply to "ordinary mortals". The history of art and literature also has its fare share of second-raters, time-servers and plodding philistines. Routine exists in art and literature, as anywhere else. We have already referred to the White Guard poet Gumilyov. The poetry is very powerful, although the political message is that of a doomed privileged class. There is nothing new in this. In the English Civil War there were also talented poets on the side of King Charles. But what is truly remarkable was the outburst of artistic talent that came from the Bolshevik revolution and of which people in the West are only now beginning to be aware.

The Revolution acted as a source of inspiration to a whole generation of writers, artists and composers. Names like Laryonov, Meyerhold, Shostakivitch, Mayakovsky, form part of a galaxy of talent the like of which has not been seen before or after in the twentieth century. Moreover, the revolution struck a note that resonated deeply in the masses, arousing a thirst for knowledge and culture that had long been repressed under class society. The poetry of Mayakovsky was listened to in wrapt attention by workers and soldiers who were beginning to discover a new dimension to life and to their own individual personality. The drama of the revolution was played out on a truly vast scale, but also in a million households and human hearts and minds. Here was a stage more colossal than any that had witnesses the tragedies of Aeschulus and Shakespeare.

The same process can be observed in every great revolution in history. The irruption of the masses on the stage of history, their active intervention in politics, signifies a sharp break with “normal" life. Men and women who are normally content to leave their individual destinies in the hands of other people-the army of "experts", the MPs, councillors, economists and bureaucrats who allegedly know best how to run society-suddenly decide that they will henceforth administer their own affairs. This is the essence of a revolution. The first manifestation of this desire to know is the explosion of information, especially the multiplication of newspapers. In the first Russian revolution of 1905-06, the circulation of the press, especially the revolutionary and progressive press, increased by leaps and bounds. Art, science and government, which were always a book sealed with seven seals to the masses, suddenly are thrown open to them. The most typical manifestation of a revolution is precisely this thirst to know and understand, and also to feel and to feel themselves human beings, not mere slaves or animals. This is where art becomes fused with revolution, becomes its very heart and soul. In Spain in the revolutionary years between 1931 and 1937, Madrid and Barcelona were capable of sustaining no fewer than 18 and 16 daily papers respectively. The poetry of Machado, Lorca and Miguel Hernandez was eagerly devoured by men and women many of whom lacked even a basic education.

Towards a world October!

The socialist revolution is unlike any other revolution in history. It supposes a complete break with the past, a radical transformation of property relations, and therefore, of the entire consciousness of earlier periods. "No wonder", wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, " that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas".

The development of capitalism creates a world market. The crushing domination of the world market is the most important fact of the epoch in which we live. In the present period capitalism has succeeded in uniting the entire world under its domination. Never in the whole history of the world has humanity had before its gaze such a fantastic perspective for development. The achievements of industry, science and technology have provided the material basis for a new and qualitatively higher form of human society based on the planned and harmonious development of the productive forces on a world scale. But at the same time, capitalist anarchy and the plundering of the planet by a handful of rapacious monopolies with almost unlimited power is posing a large and threatening question mark over the very future of the human race.

The breaking down of all barriers in the way of human communication and intercourse in turn creates the conditions for an internationalisation of culture. National narrow-mindedness becomes increasingly impossible. We see the beginnings of world culture, world literature, art and music. This is the starting-point for a new stage in human development. But under capitalism it inevitably has a one-sided and distorted character. It appears as the domination of one culture which subordinates all the others to itself. The "Americanisation" of culture appears as a plague that spells the death of national cultures, commercialisation and cultural impoverishment. Yet "American culture" is not confined to Coca Cola and MacDonalds. It also includes things like computers and Internet, things which potentially provide us with the instruments for revolutionising the entire base of human civilisation. Marxists are therefore not "anti-American", any more than we are anti-Russian, anti-French or anti-Chinese. We are against capitalism and imperialism, and for socialism and internationalism.

Capitalism destroys national culture just as it breaks down the barriers to trade which stand in the way of its universal domination. True internationalism - that is, socialist internationalism - does not mean the domination and oppression of small nations by big ones. It means a harmonious international order based on a common plan of production that would pool the vast resources of the planet in the interests of all. In such a world order, every nation would contribute with all its resources to the general good - not just economic resources, but also human and cultural ones. In every nation - even the smallest one - there is a wealth of talent and cultural and artistic potential. The way to develop this potential, however, is not, as narrow-minded nationalists assume, by shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, but by uniting the particular to the general, by contributing the cultural riches of every people to the general store of human knowledge, and thus enriching the whole of humanity.

The prior condition for the progress of humanity is the struggle for the socialist transformation of society on a world scale. And artists and writers can play an important role in this fight. On the eve of the Second World War, when mankind was locked in a life and death struggle in every continent, Trotsky found time to write a manifesto in collaboration with the famous surrealist Andre Breton calling for the complete freedom of art. The manifesto, which aimed to enlist the support of progressive artists and writers for the cause of international socialism, was an uncompromising declaration of war against fascist and Stalinist totalitarianism. Partly on his initiative, in 1939, on the eve of the War, the FIARI (International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art) was established in response to the manifesto. But it was a precarious set-up that soon collapsed. This fact shows the enormous importance Trotsky gave to the role of artists and writers in the revolutionary struggle to change society.

The road to the socialist revolution will be paved by a struggle to defend the conquests of art and culture against the threat posed to it by the decay and degeneration of capitalism. Art must oppose the yoke of tyranny in all its forms, not just the policeman with his baton and handcuffs, not only the soulless bureaucrat with rule-book in hand, and not only the spiritual policemen of the Church, but also the dictatorship of Capital which is the mother and father of all forms of oppression, both material and spiritual. Real art is always revolutionary by its very nature.

The anarchist Kropotkin wrote a famous book entitled The Conquest of Bread. But the conquest of bread, although a very necessary first step is only that: a first step. A socialist planned economy, under the democratic control and administration of the working class, will provide the necessary means of abolishing poverty and raising the level of life and culture to a point where men and women will no longer be concerned with material wants. They will be freed from the humiliating obsession with material things, the product of the animal struggle for existence, and consequently will be free to dedicate themselves to a truly human existence.

The advances of science and technology are such that -if they were utilised rationally under a planned economy- the working day could be reduced to a minimum expression. For the first time the majority of men and women would have access to the world of culture, art and science, thus unleashing a vast untapped potential for human progress. The conquest of the planet, which under the reign of capitalist anarchy has led to the degradation of the environment - would be brought back to humane and manageable proportions, making the world a fit place to live in: the air fit to breathe, the food fit to eat, the seas once more teeming with life. After that, new challenges will open up before the human race: having become masters of the planet, humans will stretch out their hands to the stars.

The prospect for human development is endless. And art, the collective dream of human betterment, will find new and infinite possibilities. Trotsky once asked: how many Aristotles are herding swine? And he added: how many swineherds are sitting on thrones? When humanity is finally permitted to develop its potential to the full, there will be no shortage of new Leonardos, Beethovens and Einsteins. Art, music and literature will flourish as never before. And finally, socialism will see the perfection of the greatest art of all: the art of life itself. As Trotsky put it in Literature and revolution:

"The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organisation of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organ and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.

"Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

"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 psycho-physical 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 harmonised, 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 the ridge new peaks will rise." (Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, pp. 255-6.)

20th December 2000

Together with this brief article we recommend to all our readers the writings of Trotsky on art and culture:


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