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Culture by the Proletariat: Workers' Institutions

The Revolution of 1905 spurred yet another cultural network, one that was controlled by the laboring classes themselves. The organizational laws of 1906, which allowed the legal formation of unions, encouraged the creation of workers' clubs and educational societies closely tied to the labor movement. With names such as "Enlightenment," "Education," and "Knowledge," these groups gained great popularity among both unionized and nonunionized workers.[37] The intended membership was the urban proletariat, which, although not always easy to define, was surely a narrower public than the people earmarked for general adult education. The programs were also more limited, largely because of restricted resources.

The rapid growth of cultural circles showed the workers' desire for education and entertainment. It was also an expression of their profound distrust of the intelligentsia. Many believed that the liberals had betrayed them in the revolution and were appalled by the socialist intellectuals' waning interest in the political struggle.[38] The new institutions were a way to educate a proletarian leadership through channels workers themselves controlled. Participants hoped that these circles would encourage an independent working-class intelligentsia, thus insuring that the proletariat would never have to


depend on unreliable intellectual allies, as it had during the Revolution of 1905.[39]

Unions and clubs had an uneasy relationship with people's universities and related groups associated with the highly suspect liberal intelligentsia.[40] Although workers attended these institutions, many believed that their own clubs and societies should replace them and become, in the words of one union publication, "the center of [workers'] entire intellectual lives."[41] They aspired to self-education (samoobrazovanie ) and aimed to exclude the intelligentsia entirely. Yet despite these optimistic hopes for autonomy, cultural circles still solicited the help of intellectuals as teachers and lecturers. These contradictory sentiments of need and resentment further strained relations between workers and educated society.[42]

The offerings in workers' clubs and theaters revealed the dominant influence of the prevailing high culture. Along with classes on the history of the socialist movement were events very similar to those offered in people's universities and people's houses. Tchaikovsky and Rimskii-Korsakov were performed at musical evenings and the repertoire of proletarian drama circles was not markedly different from that of people's theaters. In its first season the theater at the Petrograd workers' society "Source of Knowledge and Light" performed Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare. Russian classics were by far the favorites in club libraries.[43] Although the proletariat


was certainly not immune to the attractions of the tabloid press and popular adventure stories, these societies tried to encourage more "refined" cultural tastes.[44]

Not all workers were content to accept the Russian classics as their own, however. While participants in proletarian clubs debated the value of bourgeois culture, creative literature by workers began to appear in the socialist press. Inspired in part by the example of Maxim Gorky, proletarian authors began to describe their lives of labor and political struggle in stories, poems, and plays. The worker-poet Egor Nechaev made a name for himself at the end of the nineteenth century with his evocations of political freedom, socialism, and factory life. By the first decades of the twentieth century socialist newspapers and journals published more and more literature by authors with direct experience in the factory. The best known writers associated with the Proletkult, including Mikhail Gerasimov, Vladimir Kirillov, and Aleksei SamobytnikMashirov, all began publishing in leftist journals and newspapers before 1917.[45] Sympathetic workers and intellectuals pointed to this new literature as evidence that the proletariat could create a significant artistic culture of its own.

The results did not please everyone. A prominent Menshevik, Aleksandr Potresov, gave a very somber assessment of workers' creative accomplishments. Because of their timeconsuming economic and political struggles, he believed that workers did not have the leisure to turn to culture. The art


they engendered was modest and unoriginal, and revealed the overwhelming dominance of bourgeois culture over their creative lives. The proletarian community, organized around struggle, was a Sparta, not an Athens. Workers should not delude themselves into thinking that they could create a proletarian culture under capitalism; instead they should alleviate the conditions that caused their subjugation.[46]

Many people, including Gorky himself, stood up to defend the quality of proletarian literature against such charges.[47] But the most passionate responses came from those who insisted that Potresov did not understand how culture and politics were intertwined. Valerian Pletnev, a Menshevik workerintellectual who would eventually become president of the Proletkult, argued that the proletariat was creating a culture through its clubs, evening schools, and theaters. Workers should be encouraged in these pursuits; they should not be told that their efforts were of little value, for the proletariat could only be victorious if it challenged the power of the bourgeoisie with its own proletarian culture.[48]

Writing in an exile journal, the Vperedist Lunacharskii insisted that Potresov minimized the importance of art in workers' lives and in the working-class movement as a whole. Potresov's depressing predictions about the dominance of capitalist culture were irrelevant. Workers should learn from the art of the past, but they would also learn how to apply that knowledge for their own ends.[49] Rather than turning their


backs on culture for politics, they should discover how to use art as a weapon in the struggle for socialism.

The links between culture and politics were illustrated very graphically when the revolutionary movement began to regain its momentum in the turbulent years from 1912–1914. Workers' clubs and educational societies became increasingly politicized, as many participants moved from the more cautious Menshevism to Bolshevism.[50] Because unions were under close surveillance, clubs became centers for underground organization. The St. Petersburg educational society "Science and Life," dominated by Bolsheviks, was a planning center for the strike activity that swept the city in July 1914.[51]

The outbreak of the First World War abruptly halted the expansion of workers' cultural groups. Fear of worker unrest led the government to repress independent workers' organizations. However, people's universities and people's houses did not suffer the same fate. Associated mainly with the liberal intelligentsia, the government did not view them as a substantial threat. The network of people's houses even expanded during the war as its two main sponsors, cooperatives and the zemstva, increased their power and responsibilities. Enterprising workers intent on continuing illegal activities learned to conduct their propaganda within this moderately neutral setting.[52] This avenue for workers' cultural activities survived even during the repressive war years.

Workers' circles offered no consensus on the meaning of proletarian culture. United by their distrust of the old intelligentsia, the collaborators in this network had a complicated


link to the cultural world that intellectuals represented. The elite's definitions of refinement and learning held many workers in their sway. But by 1917 some were ready to sweep away this old cultural edifice along with the political and economic institutions that sustained it.

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