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Workers' Control?

During the Civil War years many revolutionary hopes for the establishment of proletarian leadership in politics, economics, and social life were disappointed. The government needed the services of intellectuals and experts in order to survive and was willing to compensate them well for their aid. By the end of the war many workers complained about the domination of specialists and bureaucrats in factories, unions, government bureaucracies, and the Communist Party. They protested that the ubiquitous influence of nonworkers marked a betrayal of the proletarian revolution.

The failure of workers' control has been examined most carefully at the factory level.[71] Workers began to take over


factories as a defensive measure to secure jobs when the Russian economy began its long spiral downward on the eve of the February Revolution. From the outset there were many competing definitions of workers' management. Some factories wanted to liquidate all nonproletarian supervisors; in others workers simply hoped to found mechanisms to supervise the administration. As the revolution and Civil War progressed, increasing demands for labor discipline and productivity, coming from the army, the Communist Party, state economic agencies, and unions, narrowed the sphere of proletarian power. This narrowing eventually resulted in the imposition of one-man management and an industrial structure that allowed little room for local governance.

However, the collapse of this movement was not simply the result of state centralization at the expense of proletarian autonomy. Experiments in worker management failed badly in many factories, particularly in those where unskilled labor predominated. Control committees discovered that they lacked the expertise to carry out supervisory tasks.[72] Calls for skilled experts, for increased labor discipline, and for better central management of the economy came from workers themselves as well as from state and party organizations.[73] The condition of the working class, weakened through revolu-


tion and war, combined with the disastrous state of the economy to contribute to the failure of workers' control.

The Proletkult's own attempt to promote proletarian leadership was on a much more modest scale. Its primary goal was to foster workers' independence within its own circles and studios. Yet even this limited experiment met with questionable results, as was clearly illustrated by the presence of intellectuals at all levels of the organization. As in the case of factory councils, this pattern can in part be traced to the severe economic and political disruptions of the early Soviet years. The Civil War weakened the proletariat's cultural vanguard, the very constituency for whom the organization was intended. But external factors alone were not to blame. Proletkult participants voluntarily chose a skilled and experienced leadership, often at the expense of class purity.

The visible role of intellectuals in the Proletkult was a source of conflict in many local organizations. According to one report in Proletarian Culture trade unionists in the provinces frequently complained that intellectuals held too much power. Disputes emerged over whether the new culture would be made "from above" by intellectuals or "from below" by the workers themselves.[74] As one speaker at a Moscow conference protested, it seemed that the organization was led by representatives of the bourgeoisie, people without any understanding of the proletarian milieu or proletarian creativity. In the provinces they called the Proletkult "Intelligentkult."[75]

These tensions could lead to bitter power struggles. The Communist Party division in Orsha, Mogilev province, shut down the local Proletkult because it reportedly had no work-


ers in it. In the town of Brasovo, Orel province, participants threatened to expel all intellectuals because they wanted too much power. The vice president of the Kologriv Proletkult was ousted when a rival candidate exposed him as an intellectual careerist who had worked his way into proletarian organizations under false pretenses.[76]

Intellectuals also resisted the Proletkult's attempts to make use of their talents. Numerous local organizations complained that they had trouble attracting and keeping a trained staff. When the Izhevsk organization was restructured under worker leadership, the new presidium still wanted the help of the local intelligentsia, but its help was difficult to procure. The Proletkultists there complained that the technical staff had undermined comradely relations by asking for higher wages.[77] An organization in the village of Tomna reported that it had extreme difficulties finding teachers. It had invited the local intelligentsia to take part, but no one responded.[78]

However, some of the battles that appeared to center on workers' control were in fact conflicts between different groups of intellectuals who claimed to represent workers' interests. In the Petrograd Proletkult, for example, a struggle developed between two factions advocating different theatrical programs. The young director Dmitrii Shcheglov, a proponent of realism, was called to task for diverging from the symbolist direction of other Petrograd studios. According to Shcheglov's memoirs, Samobytnik-Mashirov, the proletarian leader of the Petrograd organization, criticized him for the independent direction of his classes and then berated himself for giving an intellectual so much control. Shcheglov recalled


that he did not say anything at all in response. "Why? Because I really never had worked in a factory and did not have the merits that my Proletkult comrades had."[79]

He was bitter, however, when Lebedev-Polianskii visited the Petrograd organization and chided participants there for giving intellectuals undue influence. The national president singled out Shcheglov for criticism and told him that he should emulate the proletarian methods of the head theater director, Mgebrov. Shcheglov noted with sarcasm that both of these representatives of the workers' interests, Lebedev-Polianskii and Mgebrov, were in fact intellectuals.[80] This struggle was over aesthetics but was couched in the language of workers' control.

This incident once again reveals the malleability of the Proletkult's class-based language. When Shcheglov opposed the aesthetic direction of the Petrograd organization, he was singled out as a suspect intellectual. But the social origins of intellectual friends went unnoticed. Just as participants altered the definition of "worker" to fit the organization's heterogeneous membership, they stretched the meanings of "intellectual" and "specialist" to suit their needs. They even devised new categories for those who had earned their trust and sympathy.

One can see this quite clearly in the answers to a 1921 central questionnaire that asked local leaders to determine whether "specialists" or "Proletkultists" were in charge of artistic studios. This questionnaire would have been an easy way to distinguish between intellectual and worker leaders, but that is not how the participants applied the categories. Instead, they were perfectly willing to give intellectuals the title of Proletkultist. The organization in Belev, for example, reported that its art studio was led by a Proletkultist when the intellectual Timofei Katurkin was in charge.[81] This flexible


use of social labels was a creative solution to a difficult problem: a simple way for participants to acknowledge the intellectuals' contributions without relinquishing proletarian control was to rename the nonworkers as part of the movement.

The Proletkult was not an organization in which intellectuals led and workers followed. Instead it was an elaborate system of mixed management. Its advocates pointed to the movement's real successes, to the national leaders who came from the proletariat, and to the strong worker presence on its local governing boards. The central Proletkult forcefully argued that it kept much tighter control over experts than did any other Soviet institution.[82] But critics found ample evidence to the contrary. The obvious discrepancy between the Proletkult's claims to proletarian hegemony and its much more modest accomplishments made it highly vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. It also graphically illustrated how difficult it was to promote cultural creation without granting considerable power to the bearers of cultural expertise.

Defining equitable relations between workers and intellectuals was one of the oldest and most persistent problems of the Russian socialist movement, a problem that began with the inception of socialism and continued well into the Soviet period. Proletkultists were keenly aware of these tensions and devised a number of rules and regulations to minimize them. However, their solutions were clearly inadequate. The obstacles, which previous generations had also faced, remained the same. The lower classes had to be educated to assume positions of power, but who would restrict the influence of the educators?

Certainly the Proletkult never gave up its commitment to


workers' control. Class exclusivity defined the organization and justified its existence in the Soviet state. At the same time, however, these principles were artfully suspended to integrate intellectuals sympathetic to the organization's goals. There were definite advantages to this arrangement; participants gained skills they never could have achieved without the aid of skilled cultural workers.

Still, the integration of the old intelligentsia raised serious and debilitating problems for the movement. It undermined the Proletkult's demand for institutional autonomy because the justification for independence was to protect its class identity. It also raised fundamental questions about what proletarian culture should or could be—something given to workers from above or something made by workers from below. At the very least, the large-scale involvement of artists and intellectuals ensured that the culture of the future would bear the marks of those who had been trained in the prerevolutionary past.

Aleksandr Bogdanov, whose writings 
on proletarian culture inspired the 
Proletkult movement.
Source: Pod znamenem marksizma
no. 4 (1928).

Valerian Pletnev, playwright and 
Proletkult president from December 
1920 until August 1932.
Source: Pechat' i revoliutsiia
no. 7 (1927).

The presidium of the national Proletkult organization elected at the 
first national conference, September 1918. Sitting from left to right: 
Fedor Kalinin, Vladimir Faidysh, Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, Aleksei 
Samobytnik-Mashirov, I. I. Nikitin, Vasilii Ignatov. Standing from 
left to right: Stefan Krivtsov, Karl Ozol-Prednek, Anna Dodonova, 
N. M. Vasilevskii, Vladimir Kirillov. 
Source:  Protokoly pervoi Vserossiiskoi konferentsii proletarskikh 
kul'turno-prosvetitel'nykh organizatsii, 15–20 sentiabria, 1918 g
ed. P. I. Lebedev-Polianskii (Moscow, 1918).

Delegates to the first national Proletkult conference sitting under a 
banner that reads "Long Live the International Proletkult."
Source:  Protokoly pervoi Vserossiiskoi konferentsii proletarskikh 
kul'turno-prosvetitel'nykh organizatsii, 15–20 sentiabria, 1918 g
ed. P. I. Lebedev-Polianskii (Moscow, 1918).

Members of the Petrograd Proletkult drama studio performing a 
collective reading of Walt Whitman's poem "Europe."
Source: Plamia , no. 21 (1918).

A choral class in the Petrograd Proletkult.
Source: Plamia , no. 9 (1918).

A scene from Valerian Pletnev's play Lena, which is about the strike 
that led to the Lena Massacre. The play is being staged by the First 
Workers' Theater in Moscow.
Source: Huntly Carter,  The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet 
 (London, 1924).

A scene from Ostrovsky's play  Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man
The play was radically revised by Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Tretiakov 
for the First Workers' Theater. The poster reads: "Religion is the 
Opiate of the People."
Source: Huntly Carter,  The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet 
 (London, 1924).

A draft of a panel by the artist Ia. M. Guminer to decorate the Smolnyi 
Institute in Petrograd for the first anniversary of the revolution. 
The caption reads: "Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees 
the World Commune."
Source: I. M. Bibikova and N. I. Levchenko,  Agitatsionnomassovoe 
iskusstvo: Oformlenie prazdnestv
 (Moscow, 1984), vol. 2.

A sketch of a banner for the Moscow Province Textile Workers' 
Union designed by members of the Moscow Proletkult art studios. 
An example of production art, the banner was to be made from 
materials characteristic of the textile trade and to have moving parts 
that evoked the workings of spinning machines.
Source: Gorn , no. 7 (1922).

A cover for the Moscow Proletkult journal  Create!  (Tvori! ) by the 
proletarian artist Aleksandr Zugrin. The top caption reads "Proletarians 
of all lands, unite!"
Source: Tvori! , no. 2 (1921).

A cover for the Moscow Proletkult journal  Furnace  (Gorn ) by the 
proletarian artist Aleksandr Zugrin. The drawing, "At the Furnace," 
shows a blacksmith at his anvil, a very common image in Proletkult art.
Source: Gorn , no. 6 (1922).

An illustration from the cover of the Moscow Proletkult journal 
Furnace  (Gorn ) commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Proletkult.
Source: Gorn , no. 7 (1922).


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