previous chapter
8 The Proletkult as Postscript, 1923–1932
next sub-section

The Proletkult's Social Program

During the 1920s the two cardinal principles of Proletkult organization, autonomy and independent action (samostoiatel'nost ' and samodeiatel'nost '), were finally separated as the organization abandoned any pretense of institutional autonomy. Despite this momentous shift in its founding principles, national leaders still believed that the organization was the main defender of workers' creative independence. Within the Proletkult's small studios and theaters members conducted innovative artistic experiments. At the same time they also tried to reach out to the laboring population at large by offer-


ing their services as researchers and instructors to working-class clubs.

Eager to end its suspect political status, the Proletkult struggled to establish its trustworthiness as a loyal, proparty organization. When a small circle of workers, inspired in part by Bogdanov's thought, formed an underground circle called "Workers' Truth" (Rabochaia pravda ) in 1922–1923, prominent party members pointed to this as yet more evidence of the Proletkult's fundamentally flawed theories.[8] Proletkult leaders publicly took the party's side, announcing that Workers' Truth was alienated from real life, had no understanding of Marxist theory, and could not grasp the dialectical development of proletarian culture. The Communist Party was neither hierarchical nor authoritarian, as the Workers' Truth group charged. Instead the party ensured workers' collective interaction and self-government.[9]

But these attempts at political conformity did nothing to halt the organization's rapid decline. There were only eleven Proletkult circles left in the Soviet Union in 1924, and early in the following year the Proletkult in Tver, one of the oldest, shut its doors, liquidated by the local party division.[10] This dramatic reduction did not leave a distilled proletarian essence. Only 20 percent of the 412 workshop participants in 1924 came directly from the factory, although 33 percent more came from a proletarian background.[11] These figures


changed little in the later years of the New Economic Policy; in 1928 only 49 percent of the students in creative workshops could claim any ties at all to the industrial working class.[12]

With their own networks so badly depleted, Proletkultists had to devise other ways to reach out to the proletarian population. As during the Civil War, they turned to clubs as their main link to the masses. By now the organization had lost control of most of its own clubs, but it provided instructors, information, and detailed guidelines for cultural work to union, factory, and Narkompros circles. Proletkult art studios crafted posters, banners, and slogans for club events. The central organization sponsored a director's workshop to train aspiring actors and directors for club theaters; it also sponsored a special program designed to educate club leaders.[13]

To popularize club work, the Proletkult replaced Furnace , its only national publication, with a new journal called Workers' Club (Rabochii klub ) in 1924. Unlike previous ventures, this journal was not addressed to Proletkult members and sympathizers alone. Instead, it was aimed at a broad audience of club workers and was filled with advice on organizational techniques, political education, and cultural events. Through this publication Proletkultists hoped to reach a large readership with the message that Soviet workers needed a rigorous and well-planned club agenda. The most frequent contributors were seasoned Proletkult club activists, including Raisa Ginzburg, M. A. Rostopchina, and Valerian Pletnev.

The ideal club of Proletkult design contained many small circles (kruzhki ). Each circle was quite specialized, but together they addressed a broad array of topical issues, including science, the family, sports, atheism, and military training. Political education received special emphasis. In the pages of Workers' Club , Proletkult activists instructed readers about


revolutionary history and current politics. Begun in the year of Lenin's death, the journal devoted special attention to the fallen hero, advocating "Lenin corners" within each club.[14] Contributors proposed special evenings of political games in which club members could test their knowledge of party history and Marxist theory. In a marked about-face peasant issues now received much positive attention. Clubs were advised to open "peasant circles" and "peasant corners" to prepare workers for agitation in the countryside.[15]

Through clubs Proletkultists hoped to continue their efforts to transform the patterns of daily life and to change the "worker-philistine" (rabochii-obyvatel ') into a conscious class member.[16] Much of the writing on proletarian habits had a familiar ring; as during the Civil War, Proletkult activists admonished club members to give up their frivolous leisuretime pursuits, such as drinking and dancing. However, they proposed different methods to achieve the old ends. To raise female attendance, for example, the editors of Workers' Club suggested an impressive array of programs, from day-care centers and lavish celebrations of International Women's Day to sewing circles.[17] Women had been a missing theme in Civil War creative works, but now the Proletkult proposed theatrical scenarios addressing the problems of divorce, child-rearing, and family law. One such sketch depicted a trial in which a man refused to accept responsibility for impregnating his companion. In order to cast doubts on his paternity, he con-


vinced his male friends to testify that they had also slept with her. In a Solomon-like decision the judge made all the men responsible for the child's financial welfare.[18]

New campaigns to change proletarian sensibilities were also added to the roster. Proletkultists urged workers to turn away from religion and join in the struggle for atheism by participating in antireligious festivities, such as "Komsomol Easter" and "Komsomol Christmas."[19] To achieve more labor discipline and higher industrial productivity, Proletkultists supported the work of the Scientific Organization of Labor (Nauchnaia Organizatsiia Truda, or NOT). Clubs should teach workers the value of time, admonished the avant-garde artist Nikolai Tarabukin. Leisure, like everything else, had to be learned.[20] To insure a strong and healthy working class, the Proletkult also became an enthusiastic advocate of physical education.

This ambitious social and political agenda was to be conveyed in large part through the medium of creative work. In the ideal club of Proletkult design, theater, music, literature, and art all became active forces in daily life. Proletkultists were strong supporters of participatory artistic forms, such as "living journals," "living newspapers," and "agitational courts" (agit sudy ). Club members were instructed to design their own scenarios for these multimedia presentations using newspaper articles and current disputes in their workplace, neighborhood, and home. Workers' Club is filled with model scenarios based on timely issues, including the rise of fascism, worker-peasant relations, and antireligious campaigns. Some combined these themes in a humorous way, as in one sketch in which physical education advocates go to a village to chal-


lenge the local priest and interest his daughter in their cause.[21]

Despite their efforts to provide practical services for labor organizations, Proletkultists encountered criticism of their day-to-day activities from the trade union cultural bureaucracy. Union organizers believed that the Proletkult placed too much emphasis on creative work at the expense of very basic educational programs, like literacy. They also feared that the kinds of clubs the Proletkult proposed could not possibly interest most workers, because they remained isolated and exclusive "laboratories." Proletkultists, however, complained that union cultural work was poorly planned, unsystematic, and devoted largely to frivolous entertainments.[22]

The Proletkult was soon forced to take trade unionists' criticisms to heart because in July 1925 the organization was shifted from Narkompros to union control.[23] As a result of this new arrangement, Workers' Club opened its pages to more reports from local union circles and began to recommend that clubs simplify their cultural offerings and devote more time to basic educational tasks. In an attempt to reach out to more workers, particularly adults, Proletkult club experts expressed an unusual concern for simple comforts, such as a pleasant club environment, better food in the buffet, and free tea.[24] Economic themes also gained more prominence. Mem-


bers were exhorted to pay more attention to the tasks of economic reconstruction and to consider ways to raise industrial productivity.[25]

In order to improve the quality of club work the Proletkult conducted numerous surveys and studies of local activities, compiling pamphlets and organizational guides. When asked, the organization also provided art instructors for union clubs. One Proletkult theater specialist completely reshaped the artistic program at the "Metallist" club in Leningrad. He convinced participants to give up their largely classical repertoire and to compose their own productions on themes such as "The Red Wedding" instead.[26] In Moscow a special research group called the "Club Cabinet" planned curricula for union cultural training programs.

For the Proletkult, clubs were centers to nurture and strengthen workers' creative autonomy. In their voluminous publications Proletkult activists continually underscored the importance of independent action. Artistic workshops were not supposed to rely on professional teachers or to follow the lead of professional artistic schools. Ideally, they would incorporate the real problems of daily life in works created by and for the participants themselves. Discussion groups and classes were intended to address issues directly concerning the members, rather than following rigid course outlines. In short, proletarian clubs were not supposed to resemble conventional educational programs, where activities were planned without student participation.

Nonetheless, there was a strong didactic, even patronizing,


streak in Proletkult instructions. The organization printed and distributed scenarios for agitational courts and living newspapers, effectively undercutting the idea that members should write their own. In the proposals for political classes and discussion circles they included suggested questions and even suggested answers, along with bibliographies of required readings.[27] The transformation of "worker-philistines" into "conscious" workers was not left to chance or to the vagaries of individual interpretation. Through the medium of creative work Proletkult club programs aimed to educate a healthy, sober, loyal, and industrious working class.

previous chapter
8 The Proletkult as Postscript, 1923–1932
next sub-section