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7 The Proletkult in Crisis
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Reorganization and Decline

The Proletkult's subordination to Narkompros irrevocably altered the movement's place in Soviet cultural life. Its claim to be the "third path" to proletarian power, bombastic in the best of times, now had lost all credence. Although few participants wanted the organization to assume a modest role as a


Narkompros subsection, it was difficult for them to articulate a new mission within the narrow limits set by the party and the state. To make matters worse, the party's intervention sparked discord within the organization and between the Proletkult and its numerous cultural competitors.

The first efforts to define a new identity began at a national plenum in mid-December 1920. Called to discuss the practical consequences of the party's letter, the plenum resulted in a new central leadership. Lebedev-Polianskii, the national president, found himself in a minority at the meeting. He opposed handing over discussions about organizational status to the Proletkult's party faction, perhaps because this would have excluded Bogdanov, who was not a party member. Moreover, he did not even want to consider any fundamental changes in the Proletkult's cultural direction. When his proposals were soundly defeated, Lebedev-Polianskii tendered his resignation, a move that was quickly accepted.[39]

Writing under the pseudonym of V. Kunavin shortly after his resignation, Lebedev-Polianskii took the opportunity to express his views on the Proletkult's subordination in the Narkompros journal Creation (Tvorchestvo ). He did not attack the party for its intervention, but he did wonder why it had chosen to move against the Proletkult when trade unions remained independent. As always, Lebedev-Polianskii was most critical of the state bureaucracy. The Proletkult was not strong enough to imbue Narkompros with the proletarian energy it so desperately needed; instead, it might easily acquire all of Narkompros's problems. Already Proletkult work was too similar to state programs, and unification would only increase the danger that the Proletkult would lose its distinctive character. The Proletkult should turn to factories and solicit a pure proletarian following. It should eschew education and propaganda and pursue scientific research and


creative programs. Only such a path would save it from disappearing forever inside the state bureaucracy.[40]

With Lebedev-Polianskii's departure the Proletkult lost its most stalwart defender of autonomy. His place was filled by Valerian Pletnev, the same energetic playwright from Moscow who had led the party faction to accept the Proletkult's subordination. A former worker, Pletnev had never been part of the Vpered circle, and his presence seemed designed to reassure Proletkult critics. His first step was to begin a rigorous reevaluation of Proletkult practice that addressed many of the Communist Party's complaints.[41] Under Pletnev's guidance the national organization decided to use the Proletkult's forces to help rebuild Soviet society in the wake of the Civil War. The Proletkult would devote part of its energies to "production propaganda," an idea proposed by Glavpolitprosvet to popularize labor discipline. It would also work to implement the party's cultural and political programs.[42]

But in crucial areas the restructured leadership refused to acquiesce to the party's critique. Significantly, Pletnev made no effort to remove Bogdanov from national prominence. Bogdanov participated in at least part of the December plenum and was a delegate to the 1921 national convention. The next issue of Proletarian Culture prominently displayed one of his articles on "organizational science."[43] And despite the Corn-


munist Party's hostile polemics against the Proletkult's approach, the plenum maintained its commitment to proletarian culture. Indeed, national leaders proclaimed that Proletkult ideas had to be publicized even more broadly in order to intensify the struggle against bourgeois culture and bourgeois life-styles. Nor would Proletkultists limit themselves to work in artistic studios alone, a frequent demand by Narkompros activists. Instead, Proletkultists reaffirmed the importance of clubs; they also insisted that the organization needed to expand its very small network of science studios, a proposal championed by Bogdanov himself.[44] Thus the decisions of the December plenum made clear that even without institutional autonomy the Proletkult intended to remain the proletariat's cultural advocate.

In taking these strong positions the national leaders of the Proletkult seemed unaware that the cultural and political landscape was changing rapidly around them. The Proletkult was not the only organization to face severe party scrutiny. Narkompros itself was in the throes of reorganization by the winter of 1920. Because of party intervention, Glavpolitprosvet became a much more ambitious enterprise, theoretically taking charge of all political education for Narkompros, the soviets, the trade unions, the army, and the Proletkult. This expansion made Glavpolitprosvet a much more formidable adversary than the Adult Education Division had ever been.[45]

Trade unions also felt the sting of reorganization. In March 1921 the momentous Tenth Party Congress ended their pretensions to a powerful economic role. Against the backdrop of the Kronstadt rebellion and other threats to Bolshevik power, the Workers' Opposition, labeled as a dangerous syndicalist


deviation, was easily defeated. Although unions retained their formal independence, their duties were henceforth restricted mainly to didactic tasks. They were to be the schools of communism, transmission belts between the Communist Party and the proletarian masses. And the more their economic duties declined, the more the unions began to emerge as serious competitors to the Proletkult in the fields of culture and education.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy made it even harder for the Proletkult to maintain its former position. Inaugurated at the Tenth Party Congress, the New Economic Policy marked the beginning of a fiscal crisis for all state institutions. The government abandoned forced requisitions from the peasantry, which dramatically lowered state revenues. As a result, there was less funding for all state services, social services in particular. Narkompros's share of the budget declined from 9.4 percent in 1920 to 2.2 percent in 1921.[46]

Despite these ominous signs, Pletnev began negotiations to preserve what he could of the Proletkult's independence. A savvy bargainer, he obtained permission from Narkompros to maintain Proletkult clubs as long as they registered with Glavpolitprosvet. In addition, he gained grudging approval for the idea of science studios. Most important, Pletnev won the theoretical assurance that local organizations could retain control over their own budgets.[47] He also bargained with the trade unions. At the national trade union convention in May 1921, where labor leaders confirmed their new role as the schools of communism, Pletnev was on hand to defend Proletkult interests. "Socialist culture can only grow from a foundation built by workers themselves," he exclaimed to an ap-


plauding audience.[48] At a special gathering of union cultural workers a few months later he convinced them to send particularly talented workers to Proletkult studios. In return he promised to let Proletkult factory organizations be counted as part of the unions' cultural apparatus.[49]

These bureaucratic wranglings were designed to protect the Proletkult's cultural territory, but they did very little to safeguard its extensive provincial networks. Indeed, there were signs that the central Proletkult saw the initial stages of the crisis as an opportunity to cleanse the organization of its troublesome elements, its nonproletarian members, and its stubbornly independent local factions. When Pletnev appeared at a meeting for trade union cultural workers in September 1921, at least half of the three hundred Proletkult divisions that had existed just a year before had already disappeared. Nonetheless, he referred to this decline as "normal." "When the slogan of proletarian culture was spread to the masses, Proletkults started growing like mushrooms even in places where there were no preconditions for creative cultural work, which we want to spread primarily among the industrial proletariat."[50]

While the center tried to save the Proletkult's institutional integrity, the complex network established during the Civil War was rapidly disintegrating. At the local level the Proletkult's loss of independence made it an easy target for rival circles that wanted to expand their cultural resources. Many Politprosvet divisions interpreted their new power as an excuse to disband Proletkult operations. The Kologriv circle, for example, was summarily closed by the local Politprosvet office.[51] Narkompros workers also resorted to harassment,


refusing to hand over Proletkult funds. In addition, they sometimes absorbed parts of local organizations' infrastructure, particularly their clubs.[52]

The exceedingly critical tone of the Communist Party's attack turned many local Communists against local Proletkult organizations. In Iaroslavl the party committee closed down Proletkult operations. Local leaders in Saratov reported that Proletkult-party relations had soured so much after December 1920 that the party had decided to close down several regional circles. Proletkultists in Samara and Tver complained that responsible workers who were party members had been assigned other duties. These reassignments seriously depleted these organizations' staffs.[53]

Unions also began to look at the Proletkult as a source of supplies and staff. In Tver, for example, labor leaders tried to take over all Proletkult clubs. The Samara union bureaucracy attempted to subordinate the entire organization as part of its cultural apparatus. In Orenburg the Proletkult faced such hostility from the local party committee that it voluntarily surrendered to union control for its own protection.[54]

But it was the fiscal consequences of the New Economic Policy that had the most detrimental effects of all. Because most local organizations had never established financial independence, they were exceedingly vulnerable when government resources dried up. Many had enjoyed some help from local allies, but now these allies faced their own constraints. During the Civil War the Shuia factory Proletkult had re-


ceived free rent, heat, and lighting from the factory management. But with the new financial policies of 1921, which required balanced factory budgets, the plant demanded payment for these services.[55]

The financial crisis at the center meant decreased funds all along the organizational chain. Because the central Proletkult secured its own needs first, it had significantly less to send to provincial and city groups. They in turn had less to pass on to those circles that were dependent on them. The lowest level organizations, factory Proletkults and clubs, suffered the most. Under these circumstances small town circles with weak or nonexistent ties to the national bureaucracy simply disappeared. Local Proletkults carried on their own internal purges, closing down affiliates they could no longer support or those that appeared to be conducting "strictly educational work."[56] The Tver provincial Proletkult encompassed four circles in 1920; by the end of 1921 only one remained.[57]

The situation of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Proletkult in the first year of the New Economic Policy illustrates how financial hardships and cultural rivalries worked together to undermine the organization. Problems began in early 1921. With the status of the Proletkult now in question the IvanovoVoznesensk branch began to have difficulties with the local party bureau and with unions. Local leaders complained that party criticism had driven some workers away. Because of financial problems, the Proletkult had to reduce its stipends for studio members to such a low level that it could no longer support those with families. The Textile Workers' Union, once an ally, now challenged Proletkult control of factory clubs.


Even the intervention of the city's Politprosvet division on the Proletkult's behalf could not mitigate union hostility. The local president, Olga Vladimirova, painted a very depressing picture. Club work was dying out and studio participants had stopped receiving rations. "Students are literally starving," she concluded.[58]

In Smolensk cultural activities were also severely restricted during 1921. The organization had no particular problems with other local groups, but it also received no help; funds from the center were simply not enough to cover costs. The Proletkult had to reduce its membership from two hundred to eighty-five and to shut down both the literature and music studios. Its one remaining regional affiliate in Iartsevo was about to close because the local Politprosvet refused to hand over funds. The Iartsevo president blamed both the central and the provincial Proletkults for his plight. They should have sent money or at least instructions on how to help his organization survive.[59]

These examples show how little central negotiations had done to stave off local crises. Indeed, some participants began to wonder if national leaders were interested in the Proletkult's continued survival as a mass organization. Despite the alarming news coming in from the provinces, Pletnev could still describe the Proletkult's decline in 1921 as "normal," a choice of words that implied that the expansion during the Civil War had been somehow abnormal. According to this interpretation the crisis was in fact an opportunity to cleanse the organization of its alien elements. However, Pletnev would soon be shocked to discover that the Proletkult's collapse had only just begun.


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7 The Proletkult in Crisis
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