previous chapter
1 Proletarian Culture and the Russian Revolution: The Origins of the Proletkult Movement
next sub-section

Left Bolshevism and Proletarian Culture

The intellectual foundations for the Proletkult movement were laid in the years after the failure of the Revolution of 1905. The defeat of the revolutionary forces marked a severe crisis for the Russian socialist movement and for the Bolsheviks in particular. When the government disbanded the Second Duma in 1907 and the police began to restrict the activities of political parties and legalized worker groups, Social Democrats had to decide whether to participate in parliamen-


tary elections or to continue the revolutionary struggle through underground agitation. This dilemma split the Bolshevik faction in two. Lenin argued that it made no sense to eschew legal channels because a new revolutionary upsurge lay far off in the future. He was opposed by a group known as the "left Bolsheviks," led by Aleksandr Bogdanov, who believed that the revolution would soon continue and that the Bolsheviks should not be lulled into quiescent parliamentarianism.

The left Bolsheviks, who included Bogdanov, Anatolii Lunacharskii, Maxim Gorky, and Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, challenged Lenin's claims to leadership and his vision of party politics. They attacked him on three different fronts: political strategy, party organization, and, most fundamentally, socialist theory.[3] Lenin's authoritarian methods of party organization received special criticism. Because the ranks of intellectual leaders had been depleted through arrests, disaffection, and exile, the left Bolsheviks feared that workers in Russia had been left without guidance. They argued that the Bolsheviks needed to encourage more collective and inclusive organizational tactics and to devote more resources to the training of worker-leaders who could assume positions of power.

Most important, the left Bolsheviks were deeply committed to a reinterpretation of Marxist theory that would give ideology and culture a more creative and central role. Opposed to the rigid materialism of Lenin and Plekhanov, they believed that the ideological superstructure was more than a reflection of society's economic base. Lunacharskii had long been fasci-


nated by the power of art to inspire political action. Both he and Gorky were convinced that socialism could convey the force of a "human religion" and inspire individuals to look beyond themselves to a higher good, one that encompassed the fate of all humanity. Taken together, their ideas came to be known as "god-building" (bogostroitel'stvo ).[4] At the same time, Bogdanov was engaged in a massive project to integrate the process of cognition into Marxism in order to develop a more sophisticated understanding of ideology.

From 1907 to 1911 the leftists were serious contenders for control of the Bolshevik center. Initially, their activist political tactics were very appealing to the rank and file.[5] They spread their ideas about ideology and society in socialist journals; Bogdanov even published a popular science fiction novel, Red Star , which depicted the results of a successful socialist revolution on Mars.[6] Bogdanov also reached out to a scholarly socialist audience. In his book Empiriomonism , made famous by Lenin's violent objections to it, he employed the ideas of contemporary Western European thinkers such as Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius.[7] In Bogdanov's view the socialist polity of the future would demand a new awareness of the relationship between the individual and society and would require a different approach to ethics, science, human values, and art.


The leftists attempted to put their ideas about party organization and tactics into practice by starting two exile schools for worker-cadres in Capri and Bologna between 1909–1911.[8] Because training and education were a central part of their program, the leftists attached great significance to these schools. The first opened at Gorky's villa on the island of Capri in the summer of 1909 with thirteen worker-students elected from Russian party committees sympathetic to the left Bolsheviks' political stance. The teachers were prominent intellectuals, including Gorky, Bogdanov, Lunacharskii, and the historian Mikhail Pokrovskii. They devised an ambitious curriculum that included classes on the history of the socialist movement, literature, and the visual arts. In addition, the school offered practical courses on agitational techniques, newspaper writing, and propaganda.[9]

Capri school leaders also tried to give life to their ideas about party organization. To elaborate their critique of the Bolshevik center, the instructors gave lectures on socialist party organization with titles such as "On Party Authoritarianism." They tried to put party democracy into action on a small scale. Both students and teachers were elected to a school council that oversaw day-to-day affairs. When the council concluded that the lectures were too long and did not leave students enough time for questions, the teaching sched-


ule was restructured and questions were integrated into the teaching format.[10]

This first experiment did not fulfill the organizers' high hopes. The teachers fought among themselves, and Gorky eventually broke with Lunacharskii and Bogdanov. Five of the Capri students deserted the program to join Lenin. Only one worker-participant, Fedor Kalinin, would go on to distinguish himself as an important party leader. Nor did the school succeed in consolidating the left Bolsheviks' political position. Already in 1908, Lenin denounced their reinterpretation of Marxism in a weighty tome entitled Materialism and Empiriocriticism .[11] He ousted Bogdanov from the Bolshevik faction before the first classes in Capri began.[12] He even tried to co-opt some of the leftists' ideas by starting a party school of his own near Paris.[13]

Despite these setbacks, the Capri experiment was a formative experience for many left Bolsheviks, Bogdanov in particular. At the conclusion of the school, a group of students and teachers came together and gave themselves a new name: the Vpered (Forward) circle.[14] The Vperedists, who gained recog-


nition from the Bolshevik faction only as a literary group, included a new element in their critique of Lenin and his politics: proletarian culture. In the Vpered platform, written by Bogdanov, they argued that the party had to look beyond narrow political and economic interests to prepare ideologically for the coming revolution.

There is only one conclusion. Using the old bourgeois culture, create a new proletarian one opposed to the old and spread it to the masses. Develop a proletarian science, strengthen authentic comradely relations in the proletarian milieu, devise a proletarian philosophy, and turn art in the direction of proletarian aspirations and experience.[15]

From this point on, proletarian culture became a major theme in Bogdanov's political writings. He made it clear that he did not mean art, science, or philosophy alone. Rather for Bogdanov proletarian culture meant a distinctive class ideology. It was the spirit of socialism already apparent in embryonic form within capitalist society and expressed through the proletariat's comradely collective working habits and organizational structures.[16] In his expansive use of the term, culture had the function of organizing human perception and hence shaping action in the world. Because of the existence of social classes, there could be no unified, common basis to human perception. It was the proletariat's task to create its own ideology, its own way to structure human experience. Because the working class was organized collectively through a labor process that enhanced comradely social relations, proletarian culture would contain a more unified, harmonious view of the world than the class cultures that preceded it.

Bogdanov's ideas on proletarian culture paralleled those of Marx on proletarian class rule. The proletariat was the "uni-


versal class"; it alone embodied the values of the classless society. Proletarian culture, Bogdanov argued, would be the most universal and inclusive of all class cultures. It would provide a fundamental preparatory step toward the creation of a truly human, classless culture in the future.[17] He insisted that cultural transformation was not a frivolous enterprise; on the contrary, it was an essential prerequisite for a successful socialist revolution. Until the proletariat devised its own collective class ideology it would forever depend on the values of the bourgeoisie. Proletarian culture was the only way to insure the victory of socialism. It had to be nurtured and developed before the proletarian revolution in order for socialism to flourish.

To implement his ambitious ideas, Bogdanov looked to institutions like the Capri school. Such programs, which he called "proletarian universities," would be open to the most sophisticated representatives of the working class. They, in turn, were to form the basis of the new proletarian intelligentsia, which would then begin the task of organizing the broad mass of workers.[18] Thus Bogdanov's program was essentially an exclusive one; he was not proposing methods for mass education. Rather than abandoning the vanguardist principles of Bolshevism, he reassessed them to insure that the vanguard came from the proletariat itself.

Vpered was not a successful political group. The Capri school had only one brief sequel, in the socialist city of Bologna during the winter of 1910–1911. By then it had no official ties to the Bolshevik center. Vperedists fell victim to émigré infighting, and Bogdanov left the circle entirely by 1911.[19] His


political challenge to Lenin's control of the Bolshevik faction was over.

But the left Bolsheviks did not give up their commitment to proletarian culture. Even after he left Vpered, Bogdanov continued to elaborate his theories. Lunacharskii pursued his interest in fine art and ideology by founding a circle for proletarian literature in Paris. There he trained exiled worker-writers, including Aleksei Gastev, Fedor Kalinin, and Mikhail Gerasimov, all influential figures in the early history of the Proletkult.[20]

With the start of the First World War Vpered was reconstituted in Geneva by Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, who would later serve as the Proletkult's first president. With Lunacharskii's aid, he used the concept of proletarian culture to explain why most European socialists had given their support to the war effort. Their patriotism revealed that socialists' ideological development was weak. The only way to end workers' dependence on the bourgeoisie was to develop proletarian culture and make scientific and socialist education the central task of social democracy.[21]

The need to educate the working class for revolution was the Vperedists' central message. Culture, art, science, literature, and philosophy—these were the weapons needed to prepare a proletarian victory. If the working class devoted itself to education, if it shaped its own revolutionary leadership and class ideology, then it would not stand helpless and divided as it had in the years of reaction following 1905. But even as the Vperedists wrote about the proper preparations for revolution, the revolution itself overtook them.


previous chapter
1 Proletarian Culture and the Russian Revolution: The Origins of the Proletkult Movement
next sub-section