previous sub-section
7 The Proletkult in Crisis
next chapter

On the Ideological Front: The Proletarian Culture Debates

By the fall of 1922 the Proletkult was a small and embattled organization, only a shadow of the movement that had claimed almost half a million members two years before. Its membership had fallen to just over twenty-five hundred students organized in twenty local circles.[82] Its once impressive publication network had collapsed. Excluded from the state budget, Proletarian Culture put out its last issue in 1921.[83] The Moscow-based Furnace , now representing the national organization, was the Proletkult's only remaining major journal.

Yet despite its drastically reduced size, the Proletkult became the subject of a major debate in the Soviet press. To be sure, by now the Proletkult hardly posed enough of a threat to initiate such controversy. But these discussions were only partly about the fate of the organization. They were also a test of the very notion of proletarian culture and provided an excellent vehicle to discuss some of the "burning questions" that the New Economic Policy had raised for the Communist Party and the state. What was the correct way to bring about the cultural transformation of Soviet Russia? Who posed a greater danger—experts and intellectuals trained under capitalism or a backward and disaffected working class?

This broad discussion of proletarian culture, approved by the Politburo itself, gave Pletnev a remarkable chance to take


the Proletkult's case to the nation.[84] Although the organization was a suspect ally, its outspoken critique of bourgeois ideology won it some sympathy among those who shared the Proletkultists' concern that the New Economic Policy might inaugurate a period of bourgeois reaction. Such fears were raised repeatedly at the Eleventh Party Congress, and Bukharin, writing in the prestigious party journal Under the Banner of Marxism (Pod znamenem marksizma ), warned that history had offered many examples of a vanquished people imposing their culture on the conquerors.[85] If the Proletkult did not have the right answers, for people like Bukharin, at least it raised the right questions.

Understandably, Pletnev was particularly concerned about the Proletkult's future, which he saw as synonymous with the future of proletarian culture. His opening article, "On the Ideological Front," was an extensive statement of Proletkult beliefs and philosophy. If Marxists were hostile to the Proletkult, that was simply because they did not understand it. Proletarian culture was the necessary antithesis to bourgeois culture, the necessary step before a real classless culture for all humanity could be achieved. Although proletarian culture would necessarily incorporate elements from all that had come before, it would relentlessly struggle against bourgeois individualism. The Proletkult was historically necessary to fight against bourgeois ideology.[86] The New Economic Policy was not mentioned explicitly in the article, but there were


transparent polemics against it everywhere. Pletnev spoke out against class compromise, the use of experts, and the participation of the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia in his organization. Proletarian culture, the necessary antidote to the current ills of the country, could only be made by the workers' hands.

"On the Ideological Front" was also a plea for more faith in the proletariat's creative powers. The working class had the force to conceive a new science and art, "even in this wild, uncultured, semiliterate, and impoverished country." Using strikingly Bogdanovist language, Pletnev defended the notion of proletarian science by insisting that the proletariat had to find new systems of knowledge, new ties between the disciplines, and a monistic understanding of the world. Moving from science to art, he proclaimed that the new culture must be made by worker artists, people who aimed to change the world, not just to beautify it. Perhaps the Proletkult had not made much progress in the four years of its existence, but one had to remember that the bourgeoisie had taken five centuries to develop its culture. "Should we consider the first experimental steps in this direction as utopian, as an unnecessary luxury?" he asked rhetorically.[87]

Pletnev answered his own question one month later. In an article entitled "In the Proletkult," he reiterated and expanded his description of Proletkult practice, praising its literary achievements, its theatrical output (especially his own plays), and its new trend toward production art. He also incorporated a novel explanation for the Proletkult's decline. The organization had grown much too large by late 1920 and the center could not provide enough resources to support such an extensive network. Therefore, from the 1920 congress onward it had deliberately reduced the number of local affiliates until there were only thirty-eight by November 1921.[88] By citing these deflated figures, which contradicted those he had


put forward a year before, the Proletkult president apparently hoped to show that his demands for continued state support were reasonable and modest, and that the collapse of the national network had taken place at least in part by design. He ended with a plea for continued subsidies: the effects of the New Economic Policy in 1922 had reduced the Proletkult well below its 1921 level. Now there were only twenty organizations and requests were coming from industrial areas to open new ones. He had heard rumors that the government might remove state support altogether. "If there is a wish to kill the Proletkult, then taking away government support will surely accomplish this."[89]

But this emotional defense served only to mobilize the Proletkult's opponents. Nadezhda Krupskaia was the first to respond. Although she did not dispute that the revolution would inspire a new class ideology, she separated the issue of proletarian culture from the Proletkult organization, which was too limited, too cut off from the masses, and too uncritical of bourgeois art to create a new culture. The proletariat did not come to power to lord it over other classes; instead it had to convince them of the rightness of its views. The Proletkult had much to be proud of, according to Krupskaia, for its studios had introduced many workers to artistic education. But she denied that it had created a uniquely proletarian art, and she rejected the idea that such an art, when it did emerge, would be made by workers alone. Proletarian culture would come from life itself; it could not be "hatched."[90]

Krupskaia's criticisms were mild compared to Lenin's. Outraged by Pletnev's first article, Lenin immediately sent off a protest to Bukharin for publishing it in Pravda . He then began to plan with Iakov Iakovlev, second in command at Agitprop, for a full-scale onslaught against Pletnev.[91] Iakov-


lev's long response, written with Lenin's aid, found nothing of value in Pletnev's defense of Proletkult work. Pletnev's ideas on science were silly and mystical. The Proletkult had no business insisting on a rigid, class-exclusive approach. Now was the time to make peace with the peasantry and the specialists. Iakovlev also lashed out at the Proletkult's artistic practice, particularly its plays.[92]

The most interesting part of this sustained critique was the picture it painted of the Russian proletariat. Iakovlev doubted that the present-day working class had the knowledge or the experience to fulfill the tasks that Pletnev described. His opponent showed absolutely no appreciation of the cultural conditions of present-day Russia, chided Iakovlev. There were aspects of bourgeois culture that were definitely needed to fight against Russia's cultural backwardness (nekul'turnost '). The years of war and revolution had robbed the proletariat of its best elements, leaving semiliterates, peasants, and speculators (meshochniki ) in their place. Instead of these "real" workers, who still prayed to the holy mother on the shop floor, Pletnev offered a fantastic vision of the working class. "Some elements of 'fantasy' were unavoidable, especially in the first period of the revolution when the working class of Russia shook the entire edifice of the bourgeois world with its mighty blows." But now the time for fantasy was over, Iakovlev concluded.[93]

Such a somber assessment of the proletariat and its skills echoed Lenin's own disparaging comments at the Eleventh Party Congress, where he insisted that Russian factories were now filled with all kinds of "accidental elements."[94] This analysis led Lenin to reject the whole idea of proletarian culture, a new step in the controversy. Before the country could


even consider tossing out what was false in the heritage of capitalism, it had to attain those accomplishments necessary for socialism, such as literacy and a disciplined work ethic.[95] As Lenin wrote in one of his last articles, "Better Fewer, But Better," flippant talk of proletarian culture had blinded too many people to the country's cultural inadequacies. "For a start we should be satisfied with real bourgeois culture; for a start we should avoid the cruder types of prebourgeois culture, that is, bureaucratic culture and serf culture, etc. In matters of culture, haste and sweeping measures are most harmful."[96]

This acrimonious discussion accomplished exactly the opposite of what Pletnev had hoped. Although the organization was not disbanded, its upcoming conference was canceled and the Politburo voted to make it financially self-supporting. It would only provide enough funds to insure that the Proletkult did not collapse entirely.[97] Addressing this move at a Politprosvet conference a month later, Lunacharskii assumed a bittersweet tone. He conceded that the Proletkult turned out to be more expensive than expected and had brought few concrete results. But if the organization did not survive, they would have to find another way to allow the most talented workers to find their own approach to culture, science, and education.[98]

The result of the new cutbacks, predictably enough, was that the Proletkult shrank still further. By November 1922 the central organization had concluded that it did not have enough funds to cover heating costs for local organizations.


By December it was running a deficit. In January 1924 there were only eleven Proletkult organizations left in the entire Soviet Union.[99] The ideological aftershocks of these debates were just as severe. They put all advocates of working-class creativity on the defensive in the early years of the New Economic Policy. But for the Proletkult their effects were even more disruptive. Proletarian creation and artistic expression were now separated from the Proletkult as a social and cultural movement.

The short, simple answer to the question of why the Proletkult declined is obvious: financial hardships were the primary cause. From late 1920 onward the organization experienced one cutback after another, and each one had serious effects on the range and quality of Proletkult activities. But this abbreviated answer only conceals another question. Why did state, party, and local institutions end their financial support? To answer this question, we must unravel a complex tangle of practical and ideological explanations.

At a very basic level the Proletkult's demise seems almost predetermined. Members of the Communist Party's central leadership, and Lenin in particular, distrusted any institution that demanded independence, from trade unions and party factions to opposing political parties. They could hardly be expected to tolerate an organization that not only aspired to autonomy but also claimed a large proletarian following. In addition, Lenin had a special grievance against the organization he associated with Bogdanov. Once he took note of the size and scope of Proletkult activities in the fall of 1920, the organization was fated for radical change.

The end of the Civil War and the introduction of the New Economic Policy only hastened the Proletkult's collapse. The


New Economic Policy marked the beginning of fiscal austerity measures for all state organs as the country struggled to recover from the long years of war. In the process most educational and cultural institutions suffered severe cutbacks. But it is also fair to say that the Proletkult was singled out as a special victim. Given the changing needs of the Soviet state and its shrinking assets, the government was hardly willing to finance an organization with dubious cultural accomplishments and a suspect political reputation.

The New Economic Policy also marked a change in the ideological climate of the Soviet Union. It initiated an era in which the radical language of class war was increasingly out of place. The party encouraged alliances between workers and peasants and between workers and the experts needed to rebuild an ailing economy. Of course the Proletkult had included experts and peasants in its activities from the outset; it was never an exclusively proletarian organization. Still, central leaders had always loudly condemned the participation of other social groups. Their class-exclusive pronouncements were part of a general chorus during the Civil War, but now they appeared querulous and even dangerous.

Proletkult leaders continued to portray themselves as stalwart defenders of proletarian culture, but they no longer had a large movement behind them to help them realize their goals. A few thousand participants, no matter what their quality, could hardly evoke the same messianic, enthusiastic appeal as the rambling, chaotic organization of the Civil War years. It did not seem utopian to think that such small numbers could change the ethical and cultural basis of an entire society. Instead it seemed quixotic. The institution that had placed proletarian culture on the revolutionary agenda in 1917 was pushed to the sidelines and was no longer able to claim a formative role in Soviet cultural life.


previous sub-section
7 The Proletkult in Crisis
next chapter