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6 Proletarian Utopias: Science, Family, and Daily Life
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Proletarian Science

Given the Proletkultists' fascination with machines and the work environment, it is hardly surprising that some participants became enamored of the idea of a proletarian science. This idea proved to be one of the movement's most controversial proposals, exciting horrified responses from those who believed that the very notion of a class-specific science called the immutable dictates of nature into question.[4] Repeated


assurances that the Proletkult did not intend to challenge Newton's laws often fell on deaf ears.[5]

The theory that evoked such passion was the brainchild of Aleksandr Bogdanov. Although Bogdanov was a medical doctor and was convinced of technology's guiding role in social evolution, he did not address himself to the natural sciences alone. The Russian word for science, nauka, like the German word Wissenschaft , applies to all scholarly disciplines, from studies of literature to physics. Bogdanov aimed to bring all knowledge into a single organized system that he called "tectology," or the science of organization.[6]

For Bogdanov all forms of science, even the most rarefied and abstract branches, reflected and sustained the social system that generated them. The way that scientific knowledge was structured, transmitted, and ultimately applied under capitalism helped to solidify the capitalist order. Bogdanov believed that the basic purpose of science was to organize labor power. Although capitalists applied scientific knowledge to bolster their own exploitative labor practices, the socialist system with the proletariat at the helm would restructure scientific knowledge to suit its radically altered social and economic goals. "The working class needs a proletarian science," insisted Bogdanov in his most famous essay on the subject. "This means a science that is acceptable, understandable, and accountable to [the proletariat's] life mission, a science that is organized from the proletariat's point of


view, one that is capable of leading [the proletariat's] forces to struggle for, attain, and implement its social ideals."[7]

The advocates of a new science did not reject the achievements of past generations, but they felt that the proletariat would have to apply this knowledge in a different way. When a critic charged that both the bourgeoisie and the working class would use the same methods to cure disease, Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov countered that this was not necessarily true. Capitalists used prescriptions and medicine, but the proletariat would examine the social causes of illness and combat them through better health care and medical insurance.[8]

However, Bogdanov and his supporters had more than a socially conscious application of acquired knowledge in mind. They insisted that the working class would fundamentally restructure scientific information. Science under capitalism was overly specialized, fragmented, and arcane. The proletariat would synthesize knowledge into one unified, monistic system and tie it to life and labor.[9] To achieve this goal, scientific learning could not simply be popularized or democratized because such an approach only meant transmitting accepted truths in an easily accessible form. Nor was it sufficient to proletarianize the institutions of higher learning. Instead science had to be socialized ; it would be altered and reexamined to meet the needs of a well-organized social system.[10] In the words of a character from Bogdanov's utopian novel, Engineer Menni , "The proletariat must master [science] by changing it. In the hands of workers it must become much


simpler, more harmonious and vital. Its fragmentation must be overcome, it must be brought closer to the labor that is its primary source."[11]

To realize this ambitious agenda, Bogdanov proposed to start proletarian universities that would be based on his own experiences in workers' educational circles and in the Capri and the Bologna schools.[12] He chose the title "university" because it evoked the kind of universalist knowledge he hoped to achieve. The explicit class label was meant to distinguish the new institutions from both elitist schools and "people's universities," which were open to the population at large. As Bogdanov's colleague Mariia Smit explained, proletarian universities would not fit workers into old educational systems, nor would they simply try to train revolutionary agitators. Their purpose was to prepare proletarian leaders, to create "the brain of the working class."[13]

The national Proletkult and numerous local groups enthusiastically embraced these proposals.[14] However, they were not alone in their passion for scientific education. During the first years of Soviet power institutions of higher learning proliferated at a dazzling rate.[15] Not only state organs but also unions, factories, cooperatives, and many other groups at the


grass roots contributed to this remarkable expansion. The Proletkult could not even claim a monopoly on the title of "proletarian university," which was used by many other sponsors.[16]

The Proletkult's first short-lived experiment in higher education began in the spring of 1918 with the opening of the Moscow Proletarian University. Its curriculum had a very Bogdanovian flavor. The school journal, which only survived one issue, announced that the institution aimed to reassess the culture of the past in light of the proletariat's collective spirit. Significantly, it also contained Bogdanov's best-known treatise on proletarian science.[17] But the Proletkult shared leadership of the school with the city soviet and the local Narkompros division. A three-way fight to control the staff and the course offerings brought about its early demise. Bogdanov blamed its failure on internal factors. He felt that the faculty members had not worked together and that the student body, composed mainly of white-collar employees, had not expressed a proletarian point of view.[18]

After this false start the Proletkult opened another school


that followed Bogdanov's educational ideals more closely. He was intimately involved in the curriculum planning for this new institution, and his detailed course outlines provide a glimpse of how he hoped to realize a proletarian science. The school had three levels, each lasting one year. During the first year, designed as an orientation course, students would be introduced to methods of scientific inquiry and taught how to express themselves in a written and oral fashion. They would survey the natural scientific disciplines, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, and physiology, in order to assess the contributions each had made to the labor process. Wherever possible, Bogdanov wanted to use experiments and hands-on techniques as pedagogical tools, not just lectures or text-books. After this basic grounding in the natural sciences students would turn to the study of society. The curriculum included classes in economics, Russian history, socialism, and the structure of the state and the economy. Here, too, Bogdanov stressed a personalized, participatory approach. Students would use original documents and case studies to gain a sense of historical development and struggle.[19]

After the first year of introductory courses, Bogdanov's aversion to specialized programs became even more pronounced. Rather than presenting each subject separately, he proposed a thematic study plan. The second year opened with an overview of the methodological techniques of scientific investigation, the principles of evolution, the basic theories of energy, and the ways that biology could be applied to the labor process. Students then turned to the social sciences, beginning with a course that examined the history of technology in society. The cycle ended with a class on dialectical materialism as the foundation for a general scientific approach to the world. Bogdanov's integrated, monistic approach to science and society was most apparent in his proposals for the final year. Students were expected to mesh their


knowledge into an encyclopedic system, culminating their work with a course called "The General Organization of Science."[20]

To avoid the problems of the first university, the Proletkult set out to find a working-class clientele. Both Proletkult and Narkompros journals publicized application requirements for the new school. Students were supposed to be recommended by working-class organizations, very broadly defined to include unions, soviets, and the Red Army. Workers and poor peasants were eligible, but white-collar workers were encouraged to go elsewhere. One article by Stefan Krivtsov, a central Proletkult leader, gave a clear explanation of the university's unique pedagogical approach. The university would not teach narrow specialties, nor would it try to create "mandarins of science." Instead, the school would encourage "builder-engineers engaged in all aspects of human endeavor."[21]

In March 1919 the Proletkult's experimental school opened with much pomp and circumstance in Moscow. It was named the Karl Liebknecht University, after the recently assassinated German Spartacist leader. Lunacharskii, Bukharin, and an Austrian representative from the Third International spoke at the opening celebration.[22] Bogdanov claimed that student selection had indeed followed the guidelines set by the central organization and that the four hundred participants came mainly from the working class and peasantry, with only a handful from the laboring intelligentsia. The scant published biographical information about a few of the students tends to confirm his assessment.[23]

The Karl Liebknecht University only flourished for a few


months before it was summarily shut down in late July 1919. Its president, N. V. Rogzinskii, who came from the Adult Education Division in Narkompros, felt that its curriculum and staff did not really express the needs of the proletariat. Instead, he proposed that the university be merged with the Sverdlov courses, which offered short-term classes for soviet and party agitators, in order to create a new institution called the Sverdlov Communist University. Although technically a merger, this proposal really meant the total loss of Proletkult control because the Communist Party Central Committee and Narkompros were to take charge of the new school.[24] Party officials explained the step as a temporary measure caused by the demands of the Civil War.[25] However, Bogdanov's innovative educational approach must have also prompted the action. Once the Sverdlov University opened in early 1920, its first president, V. I. Nevskii, went out of his way to denounce the idea of a proletarian university in general and Bogdanov's theory of organizational science in particular.[26]

Bogdanov's unusual curriculum was hardly tested during the university's brief existence, and student questionnaires published after its demise gave mixed reviews. Some students made modest statements about their experience. "I learned what I had to read and how to understand what I read," asserted one participant. But others offered a more positive assessment. "I am entirely convinced that it is necessary to develop a new scientific method," concluded an enthusiastic student. "Only in this way will it be possible to take the valuable and necessary elements from bourgeois culture in order


to create and strengthen genuine proletarian culture and ideology."[27]

Many of the former students certainly cared enough about the school to protest its sudden closure. In a poignant letter to the Proletkult central committee, they questioned whether the new school would really meet their needs. The Karl Liebknecht University had aimed to educate proletarian intellectuals in a rigorous three-year program, but the Sverdlov University planned to train agitators in only four months.[28] But one critic writing in Izvestiia argued that this was precisely the point. The state needed agitators, not self-styled proletarian leaders. Paraphrasing Marx, S. Novikov claimed that the former proletarian university had hoped to teach students to have a revolutionary worldview, but the new Communist university would teach them how to change the capitalist world into a socialist one.[29]

The failure of the Karl Liebknecht University certainly did not put an end to Proletkult experiments in proletarian science. Various provincial organizations opened their own schools that were intended to educate the working class in a new spirit. "All over Russia a wave to build workers' universities is spreading," exclaimed one central organizer in 1919. In Orel workers donated wages from an extra day's work to finance such a venture. New proletarian institutes of higher learning opened in Smolensk, Tula, Penza, Sormovo, Tsaritsyn, and Balashov.[30]

However, many of these schools were not directly controlled by the Proletkult, nor did they follow Bogdanov's


elaborate educational plans. Tver's "Karl Marx University of Proletarian Culture," founded at a provincial Proletkult conference in 1919, is a good example. From the very beginning the local Narkompros division jointly sponsored the project and the school opened its doors to white-collar employees as well as to industrial workers and peasants. The curriculum, which was hardly innovative, included classes in foreign languages, economics, and accounting.[31]

These provincial experiments distressed Bogdanov because he felt they corrupted his image of proletarian science. Most of the new institutions really did not deserve the name they gave themselves, he complained. They were just "people's universities" offering basic educational courses to a variety of social classes. Although there was certainly nothing wrong with such an endeavor, it hardly contributed to the development of a new science. His own curriculum was not intended as a rigid system, but in order to earn the title of proletarian university an institution had to attempt to unify and reassess scientific knowledge.[32]

With their efforts to create unique proletarian institutions of higher learning largely frustrated, central Proletkult leaders began to pursue a different course. They proposed that local groups open "science studios," similar to the artistic workshops that most already offered. Mariia Smit, an enthusiastic advocate of proletarian science, gave a detailed description of these circles at the Proletkult national congress in 1920. They were to attract some forty to fifty participants, all from the industrial proletariat. Ideally, these workers were to have long years of factory experience behind them that had earned them leading roles in the labor movement. Because of the nature of the subject matter, Smit conceded that the in-


structors would most likely have to be intellectuals, but she insisted that they be Marxists with close ties to factory labor. She also sketched out the curriculum: a very modified version of the program for proletarian universities. Students would be introduced to mathematics, physics, technology, biology, political economy, and the theories of proletarian culture.[33]

Science studios were never very popular with local organizations, perhaps in part because the center only proposed them just as the Proletkult began its rapid decline at the end of 1920. They obviously also posed burdensome staffing problems for groups that already lacked skilled personnel. In addition, the intended clientele was the most advanced and politically sophisticated workers, a commodity always in short supply.

Spontaneous attempts to start science divisions in the provinces came up with many of the same results as provincial proletarian universities. They were long on introduction and short on synthesis. The science section in the Smolensk Proletkult, for example, claimed that it would "eradicate the division between science and labor and investigate new scientific methods."[34] But its practice did not bear out these promises. A group of local teachers and doctors gave lectures on biology, bacteriology, and sanitary problems, along with discussions about current problems, such as "Why We Don't Have Bread."[35]

Bogdanov's reaction to local programs of this sort was predictably negative. He personally censured the work of the "Socialist Education Division" in the Petrograd Proletkult, which offered classes in foreign languages, mechanics, and construction.[36] At a Proletkult central committee meeting in


August 1919 Bogdanov argued that there was nothing at all socialist about the division's curriculum. He was particularly offended by the group's plan to take a trip to America to study technology. Following Bogdanov's recommendations, the central committee directed that the division be closed without delay.[37]

The development of proletarian science was resisted on many levels; it was stymied by the hostility of state organs, by staffing problems, and also by the commonplace tastes of local members and teachers. Although the issue remained on the Proletkult's agenda, the methods for its realization were constantly scaled down. A handful of local science studios took shape during the first years of the New Economic Policy, but they were short-lived and offered a very small range of courses.[38] At the national level a central science circle opened in 1921. Although sponsored by the central committee, it had none of the ambitions of Bogdanov's proletarian university. Most of the courses were in the arts and political education; only a handful touched on the natural sciences. The overarching interdisciplinary courses, which were the trademark of Bogdanov's inventive curriculum, were missing altogether.[39]

Proletkult organizers finally turned to workers' clubs as the primary vehicle to impart scientific education. These popular institutions could reach a larger audience than either the Proletkult studios or the universities and thus seemed to be able to bring the promise of a new science to the masses. Yet by the time the Proletkultists set out on this course during the New Economic Policy their educational agenda had shrunk yet

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again. The courses they proposed dealt with the rudiments of socialist theory, economic planning, and rational labor practices.[40] This was hardly an education for utopia that would shatter conventional perceptions of the world.

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