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1 Proletarian Culture and the Russian Revolution: The Origins of the Proletkult Movement
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The Founding of the Proletkult

The broad array of cultural programs that flourished before 1917 shared one common purpose: they were preparatory courses for political change. The activists in these diverse projects disagreed about the most fundamental issues, but they all agreed that cultural training was necessary for a lasting and meaningful transformation of Russian society. The February Revolution of 1917, which came as a surprise to organized political parties and labor groups, immediately changed the context of further political discussion and altered the assumptions of cultural activists. Programs for enlightenment now became a way to continue the revolution, to shape its outcome, and to determine the purity of its goals.

The February Revolution inspired a multitude of new organizations, from factory committees to soviets, that from the outset challenged the efforts by the Provisional Government to consolidate its power.[53] The precarious new government, formed from the defunct Duma, took charge until elections could be held. It was overseen by a popularly controlled system of soviets that put forward its own agenda for political change. This complex arrangement, known as "dual power," was not limited to politics. In the economic sphere capitalists faced recalcitrant factory committees and unions, and landowners were opposed by the land-hungry peasantry. There


was also a cultural divide. The government's authority was undercut by a plethora of organizations at the grass roots that tried to impose their own visions of cultural transformation.

The Provisional Government inadvertently contributed to the growth of new cultural programs by its inactivity. The new Ministry of Education, headed by the Moscow University professor A. A. Manuilov, was not eager to begin major educational reforms until the revolution became more secure. Manuilov believed that the government's major responsibility was to remove the many strictures on education developed under tsarism. The new regime of course supported the democratization of education and the expansion of institutions open to the lower classes. Significantly, Countess Panina, whose people's house had played such an important role in the lives of many Petersburg workers, was named assistant Minister of Education under Kerensky. However, the government had neither the time nor the inclination to develop bold educational policies that promised significant change or a new approach to cultural affairs.[54]

While the government hesitated, alternative cultural programs were springing up everywhere. Unions and factory committees founded their own educational sectors, as did political parties and soviets. In Petrograd alone, workers' groups claimed some 150 clubs with one hundred thousand members.[55] Participants in these programs condemned the new government for its lack of concern for public education, and the state's inaction invested them with political and moral authority. It appeared that they, not the government,


had the cultural interests of the workers at heart. Cultural policy became yet another contested arena between the Provisional Government and the opposition.

Despite their numbers, the hastily formed cultural circles were very unstable. They lacked staff and supplies, and often had very shallow roots. Many competing groups laid claims to the same scarce resources, and there were no generally recognized institutions to oversee and manage affairs. Some participants believed that the best solution would be to create some centralized coordinating body, but this posed additional problems. In the polarized political atmosphere between February and October, it was difficult to decide just who should take control. If the Provisional Government was not to be in charge, then who was?

The most obvious candidates were the soviets. In some parts of Russia local soviets moved quickly to establish influential cultural and educational divisions.[56] The national Congress of Soviets also tried to devise a cultural agenda. Faced with an inactive government, it proposed to start a national commission that would arrogate to itself the tasks of a state ministry, overseeing education from the elementary school to the university level. But with such broad duties, the specific needs of the adult working-class population were a relatively minor issue.[57] Accordingly, proletarian groups began to question whether the soviets could meet their needs.

Trade unions, as long-standing supporters of workers' enlightenment, were the first to propose a new institution to sustain specifically proletarian cultural projects. At the national union conference in June 1917 the Menshevik Ivan Maiskii argued eloquently for unions to assume responsibility for cultural training. "The workers' movement is, among other things, also a cultural movement. Only a worker who is


consciously concerned with his surroundings can be a convinced socialist and an active participant in the union movement."[58] He proposed that unions form a broad national apparatus, with its central committee in Petrograd, to coordinate workers' cultural-educational activities. This new structure would include representatives from unions, soviets, cooperatives, and Social Democratic parties.[59] But the union bureaucracy faced pressing political and economic problems that left it little time for education. Maiskii's entire presentation had a somewhat plaintive tone; he seemed to beg his colleagues to give more time to culture. Not surprisingly, union efforts brought few results.[60]

It was the most militant workers' organizations, the factory committees, that succeeded in founding a proletarian cultural network. These bodies, intended first as defensive mechanisms to insure jobs when the Russian economy began its long spiral downward, expanded rapidly after the February Revolution.[61] Many factory committees formed cultural commissions devoted to education, leisure activities, and agitational work at the factory site. These cultural circles were particularly active in Petrograd.[62] When the Petrograd factory com-


mittees gathered in a citywide meeting in August 1917, the delegates proposed to create a new body to unify and direct the proletariat's cultural work.

That factory committees succeeded in this endeavor was in large part because of the efforts of cultural activists from the Vpered circle. In 1917 they returned from exile and, except for Bogdanov, rejoined the Bolshevik Party. Lunacharskii, who followed Lenin from Switzerland in a second sealed train, was the most important figure.[63] It was he who united the theoretical positions of Vpered with the growing network of proletarian cultural groups and thus created the basis for the Proletkult.

When he arrived in Petrograd, Lunacharskii started work on Gorky's newspaper, New Life (Novaia zhizn' ), using this platform to popularize his views on cultural transformation.[64] He proclaimed that cultural organization should be the "fourth form" of the working-class movement alongside political parties, unions, and cooperatives.[65] The creation of a central structure for workers' cultural societies was more than an administrative convenience. It was a way to start a new proletarian movement that alone could insure that culture became a central focus of revolutionary change.

Lunacharskii made his points forcefully at the August 1917 gathering of factory committees. He argued against those who seemed to think that culture was some sort of dessert, a treat to be enjoyed when the political situation had stabilized. "Cultural-educational work is just as essential as the other forms of the workers' movement. In our understanding of it, this does not mean just adult education and literacy classes. It


is the development of a sensible, harmonious world view."[66] To insure an institutional structure suited to their demands, workers had to form their own cultural administration. Because the soviets and the city duma were not class-exclusive institutions, they could not represent workers alone. Unions, which were class-exclusive, were mainly interested in technical education. Thus the proletariat had no choice but to create a new center of its own.[67] Convinced by Lunacharskii's arguments, delegates passed a resolution confirming culture's dominant position in the labor movement. To realize these ideas, the conference proposed to found a centralized cultural institution that would assume control of all cultural activities among workers, first in Petrograd and then throughout Russia.[68]

The first step in this ambitious program was to call a conference of all the city's proletarian cultural-educational organizations. Lunacharskii was at the center of these preparations, aided by his old friends from exile, Lebedev-Polianskii, Kalinin, and Pavel Bessalko. Members of the newly formed Society of Proletarian Writers, especially I. I. Nikitin and Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov, also took part in the planning. Other organizers included the avant-garde writer Osip Brik, the Bolshevik art and theater expert Platon Kerzhentsev, and a proletarian actor named Vasilii Ignatov.[69] Except for Brik, all of these men were to become important figures in the early history of the Proletkult.

Conference preparations were very thorough. Planners drew up questionnaires soliciting information about the range and content of cultural work in the capital. In the hope that the conference would represent all circles serving the working class, they invited factory committees, unions, army


groups, socialist parties, and soviets to take part. The socialist press printed impassioned appeals explaining the significance of cultural organization. To quote one:

The proletariat believes that true art ennobles and elevates the individual, making him capable of great emotions and deeds. Unlike any other force, [art] organizes the masses into a unified collective. Knowledge and beauty cultivate the individual and the class. . . . Education and creation in science and art are an integral part of every powerful social movement, every revolution.[70]

Although conference planning was technically in the hands of the factory committees, the Bolsheviks, who by now controlled most of these committees, were crucially important.[71] The main organizers were party members, although many were recent converts from the Vpered faction, and the Bolshevik press was the most active in publicizing the event. However, other socialist parties did not view the conference as a strictly partisan affair. Both the Menshevik Internationalist paper New Life and the Menshevik Worker's Paper (Rabochaia gazeta ) greeted the preparations and gave the conference good coverage.[72] Discussions about aesthetics and education did not break down neatly along party lines.

In mid-October, just one week before the storming of the Winter Palace, the first conference of proletarian cultural-


educational organizations opened in the Petrograd city duma. The Bolsheviks had already begun preparations for an armed uprising; the first national conference of factory committees was meeting in Petrograd at the same time; and there was also a gathering of garrison committees. All of Petrograd's political parties were preparing for the upcoming Congress of Soviets.[73] In this politically charged atmosphere, some two hundred workers and intellectuals met to discuss the role of fine arts and education in the working-class movement.[74]

Lunacharskii presided over the conference, aided by Fedor Kalinin (representing unions), the Bolshevik organizers Konkordiia Samoilova and Iurii Steklov, as well as Vasilii Ignatov.[75] In the opening address Lunacharskii asked delegates to confirm the importance of culture in the struggle for socialism. Despite some objections from the floor, his position carried the day: "The cultural-educational movement must be part of the general working-class movement together with political, economic, and cooperative organizational forms."[76]

Most of the lectures on artistic practice were given by intellectuals. Lunacharskii addressed problems of literature, the futurist Osip Brik spoke on the arts as a whole, and the folk music expert Arsenii Avraamov lectured on music.[77] Both Brik and Avraamov reflected the values of the prerevolutionary adult education movement. They hoped the new organization would help to bring art to the masses. Brik in particular used the vocabulary of liberal and leftist intellectual educa-


tors. Avoiding any references to proletarian culture, he insisted on the need to democratize the arts.[78]

The prominent role of intellectuals irritated some workers, who raised the same objections that participants in workers' clubs and educational societies had voiced since 1905. Intellectuals, particularly those who were not socialists, were fickle allies. Lunacharskii tried unsuccessfully to get delegates to agree that they should accept the help of all sympathetic intellectuals, regardless of their political views. One worker, B. D. Mandelbaum, objected so violently that he swayed the assembly to override the proposal. Delegates determined that nonparty intellectuals would only be accepted to teach in the natural sciences, presumably the area where they could do the least harm.[79]

The February Revolution created a new problem that cultural activists before 1917 had not seriously considered. What relationship would this new cultural organization have to the existing state? The delegates agreed with the Bolshevik intellectual D. I. Leshchenko that the structure they were founding had to be completely independent from the government, reflecting the general dissatisfaction with the Kerensky regime. Only workers themselves could guarantee that their education had a revolutionary, Marxist content.[80] At the same time, however, conference participants insisted that the groups they represented had to retain their own integrity. The new organization would not be able to dictate the practices of the clubs and circles gathered within it. The center would be an exchange (birzha ) for supplies and staff, but it would in no way limit local control.[81]

Defining proletarian culture proved to be the most difficult problem of all. Whereas Osip Brik did not even address the issue of class culture, Vasilii Ignatov took a militant position.


He argued that proletarian theater should use only proletarian actors and a proletarian repertoire, resorting to plays written by intellectuals only when they specifically met the needs of the working class. The audience was also split. Some delegates insisted that workers should first absorb the cultural classics, but others denied that "bourgeois" culture had anything to teach them.[82]

Lunacharskii emerged somewhere in the middle. He endorsed the idea of proletarian culture wholeheartedly but reminded workers that they had much to learn from the culture of the past. His position eventually prevailed, and the final resolution was worded so that both sides could support it:

In both science and art the proletariat will develop its own independent forms, but it should also make use of all the cultural achievements of the past and present in this task. . . . Nonetheless, [the proletariat] must have a critical approach to the fruits of the old culture. It accepts them not as a student, but rather as a builder who is called to erect bright, new structures using the bricks from the old ones.[83]

Although all the preparations were completed at the October conference, it was only in mid-November, after the Bolsheviks took power, that the organizing committee had a chance to meet. It set up an office within the state's educational commission and began plans to start a theater and a library.[84] At this point the group's secretary, Ignatov, suggested an abbreviation for their cumbersome title. The amalgam of proletarian cultural-educational organizations would henceforth be known as the Proletkult.[85]


The Proletkult inherited many persistent controversies from its precursors. Long-standing debates about the meaning of proletarian culture, from the transmission of elite learning to the discovery of working-class art, resurfaced at the founding conference. The Proletkult's planners did not move far past the old disputes about intellectuals' place in proletarian movements. The heated discussions about workers' need for a grounding in the culture of the past could have been taken directly from the pages of labor journals in the years after 1905.

However, the organization that took shape in 1917 was more than the sum of its prerevolutionary parts. The political struggle fought in the name of the proletariat unavoidably enhanced its goals. Lunacharskii's vision of a cultural movement parallel to unions, socialist parties, and cooperatives was much more ambitious than the elite training schools Bogdanov had proposed. It was also less cohesive. Individual circles' demands for autonomy foreshadowed future tensions between the advocates of local control and those who hoped to forge a centralized national movement.

The revolutionary origins of the Proletkult also complicated its relationship to the state and to the party that would play such an important role in state affairs. Many times during conference preparations, Lunacharskii stressed that governmental institutions could never represent the needs of the working class alone. Only a consciously proletarian organization could be an effective advocate for the workers' educational and cultural demands. This stance was formulated in opposition to the Provisional Government. But for many involved in the planning of the Proletkult, their strong commitment to class institutions did not end when the Bolsheviks heralded the beginning of the new Soviet state.


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1 Proletarian Culture and the Russian Revolution: The Origins of the Proletkult Movement
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