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7 The Proletkult in Crisis
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The Proletkult in Crisis

In October 1920, just as the worst of the Civil War was past, Proletkult delegates gathered in Moscow to discuss what seemed to be the bright future of their cause. The organization's mass base promised to grow as the new era of peace saw the return of workers to the factories. The national leaders were convinced that Proletkult work would improve in quality now that the agitational tasks of the war were over. They even foresaw international expansion and support. But these optimistic projections were quickly undermined. By the conclusion of the conference the Communist Party Central Committee forced the Proletkult to give up its independence and become part of the state's cultural bureaucracy, thereby initiating a period of precipitous decline for the organization.

The Communist Party's assault on the Proletkult is often presented as the logical result of Lenin's longstanding animus against Bogdanov.[1] Although certainly a factor, this animus alone cannot explain the timing or the vehemence of the party's actions. Bogdanov, after all, had taken part in the Proletkult from the very beginning, and he retained a leading


position a full year after its subordination. Proletkult autonomy, not Bogdanov, was the prime target of the central committee's attacks in the fall of 1920, when the imminent end to the war marked yet another crisis for the new regime. Despite the hardships, the Civil War had worked as a cohesive force for the Soviet state. Many potential critics feared the Whites more than the Bolsheviks and thus put aside their doubts until the outcome was certain. But as the war drew to a close, debates about the future of the country began anew. Emergency solutions to military problems lost their primary justification. Union activists began to clamor for a more central role in economic planning. Critical factions within the Communist Party called for reorganization and decentralization. In response the party leadership moved quickly to undercut potentially troublesome groups, among them the Proletkult.

A central issue in the heated political discussions that began in 1920 was the future role of proletarian institutions. The state had mobilized (and eventually militarized) Russian labor during the war while restricting labor unions mainly to disciplinary tasks. Although labor leaders accepted these conditions in the context of the military crisis, once a Red victory seemed certain some began to chafe against them. Trade unionists were particularly opposed to plans to continue labor militarization into the postwar period to meet the new emergency of economic reconstruction. These proposals aimed to fuse the unions with the state bureaucracy.[2]

This course was most vehemently rejected by the leftist trade union activists known as the Workers' Opposition. With a following in the Metalworkers' Union, in Moscow, Samara, the Urals, and the Ukraine, the Workers' Opposition de-


manded that the trade unions be granted real independence and the power to control the economy. Their insistence on autonomy sounded very similar to Proletkult demands. Indeed, the major theoretical statement of the Workers' Opposition, written by Aleksandra Kollontai, coincided with the Proletkult's vision of the Soviet order on many levels. The Workers' Opposition attacked the prevalence of nonworkers, particularly specialists, within the Soviet system; its solution to the growing bureaucratization in the party and the state was to allow more room for workers' independent action (samodeiatel'nost '), a key word in the Proletkult vocabulary.[3] The members of the Workers' Opposition also criticized internal party organization, insisting that the Bolshevik leadership pay more attention to the rank and file and introduce wider discussion and debate.[4] Another critical faction, the Democratic Centralists, shared some of these complaints, arguing that the party was overcentralized.[5] Although the Democratic Centralists and the Workers' Opposition did not unite around their common grievances, the appearance of such vocal critics worried the party leadership and eventually led to the ban on factions at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921.

In addition to this dissent among their allies, the Bolsheviks also had to ponder the daunting problem of the Russian peasantry. During the Civil War peasant sympathy for the regime's land programs had been worn thin by grain requisitions at gunpoint. In the summer of 1920 the peasantry in Tambov province erupted in a partisan war against Soviet power that helped to convince the government that forced requisitions could not long continue. It was painfully clear


that the state had to shift to noncoercive economic measures if it were to forge a modicum of support for the regime.

As they pondered new economic approaches, government leaders also began to give even greater consideration to propaganda and education as a way to imbue the population with a unified, pro-Soviet spirit. In August 1920 the Communist Party created a special division of agitation and propaganda, usually known as Agitprop, to oversee all Soviet institutions involved in political education.[6] At the same time, Narkompros created its own section for political enlightenment, Glavpolitprosvet, out of its former Adult Education Division.[7] Because the exact duties of these two new groups were not clearly defined, they were potentially in conflict. Nonetheless, their almost simultaneous creation illustrated the appearance of a new emphasis on political education as a way to cement the social order.

Although the Proletkult had mainly worked as a loyal propagandist for the Red cause during the Civil War, it nonetheless embodied potentially threatening principles. Its insistence on autonomy had an ominous ring at a time when other groups were making their own case for independence and authority. Its claims to a large following among rank-and-file workers made it a possible candidate for opposition. Finally, it oversaw a broad network of cultural and political education programs theoretically free from party and state control. Thus, with or without Bogdanov's provocative presence, Lenin had ample motivation to turn against the movement as the country made its rocky transition from war to peace.

The End of Proletkult Autonomy

From its inception the Proletkult had faced local challenges to its independence from labor unions, local party committees,


and state organs. Narkompros workers were its most persistent critics. Nadezhda Krupskaia, head of the Adult Education Division and, later, Glavpolitprosvet, never saw any justification for Proletkult autonomy because she did not think the organization served any special cultural function. Instead, it was a "completely ordinary educational organization, its practice and class composition hardly distinguishable from Narkompros organizations."[8] Since 1918 Krupskaia had tried to absorb the Proletkult into the Adult Education Division, raising the issue at every opportunity. In May 1919, at the first national conference of adult education workers, she determined that because the Proletkult was in essence an adult education organization, it belonged under the aegis of Narkompros. With her encouragement the delegates voted overwhelmingly to tie the Proletkult to her division.[9]

This decision provoked protests from local Proletkult organizations. One disgruntled Proletkultist in Tambov querulously inquired why the state kept reopening an issue that had long been settled.[10] The presidium of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk organization expressed anger and bewilderment. How could anyone object to an independent working-class organization? "Proletkults have firmly established their organizations in factories and plants and have taken hold among the working class. If we eliminate them, we will uproot the basis of cultural-educational activity among the workers."[11]

To clear up the confusion, representatives from Narkompros and the Proletkult met in June 1919 to define the terms of their relations yet again. Lunacharskii, Krupskaia, and Lebedev-Polianskii agreed to a compromise that seemed to offer


something for everyone. Local Proletkults were to become subsections of local Adult Education Divisions, which partially confirmed the decision of Krupskaia's section. However, they could continue to conduct their work independently with their own separate budgets.[12] This ambiguous ruling did little to resolve the issue. In some towns, such as Tver, Proletkult workers came to an amiable agreement with the Adult Education Division.[13] But conflicts persisted in many other localities. State representatives were hardly satisfied, and when the Adult Education Division began its reorganization in the summer of 1920 many of its officials perceived this as an opportunity to take full charge of Proletkult operations.[14]

Until 1920 the Communist Party did not officially take sides in these skirmishes over the Proletkult's status. Because there were no firm guidelines, Proletkult-party relations varied from one locality to the next. Whereas in Tula the provincial party committee helped to found the Proletkult and confirmed its leadership, in Tambov Proletkultists confronted hostility from party members, who believed that the organization was a frivolous distraction from serious social responsibilities.[15]

But as it became clear that the Civil War was coming to a close, the Communist Party Central Committee abruptly ended its official silence and began to express concern about the Proletkult's status. Lenin was chiefly responsible for this change. Initially, he had seemed to approve of the new organization, which he viewed as a way to educate workers to assume positions of authority in the state.[16] However, once he


took notice of the scope of Proletkult activities, he became much more critical and began to formulate his own ideas about cultural transformation. Although he would not finalize his thoughts on culture until the last years of his life, already in 1919 Lenin began to attack what he felt were the mistaken priorities in Proletkult work.[17]

Lenin was a cultural conservative whose own tastes tended toward the Russian classics. He took a dim view of the many avant-gardist experiments engendered by the revolution, Rather than squandering resources on such projects, Lenin believed that the state had to address Russia's cultural backwardness, especially its low literacy levels and poor work habits. To overcome these obstacles, the new regime had to make use of the cultural foundation inherited from capitalism and employ the experts that capitalism had trained. "We have to build socialism from that culture," he insisted. "We have no other materials."[18] Speaking out at the 1919 conference of adult education workers, Lenin proclaimed his opposition to "all kinds of intellectual inventions (vydumki ), all kinds of 'proletarian culture.' "[19] The real evidence of proletarian cul-


ture would be effective organization to supply the devastated country with coal and bread.

Narkompros's critique of the Proletkult centered on Proletkult practice. Krupskaia, in particular, pointed to the rudimentary and unexceptional nature of much Proletkult work and used this contention as the justification to call for its subordination. Lenin, by contrast, was offended by Proletkult theory, even though it often had little to do with Proletkult practice. He opposed his own pragmatic thoughts on culture to the "harebrained" conceptions of Proletkultists. As soon as Lenin entered the fray, the organization was threatened both for what it was and for what it wanted to be.

Bogdanov's continued commitment to proletarian culture worried Lenin as well. In the early years of Soviet power Bogdanov published widely, and his writings clearly influenced some prominent party leaders, including Bukharin.[20] When Lenin discovered that Bogdanov had issued a new edition of his book Empiriomonism , which had been so important in their prerevolutionary altercations, he promptly planned a new edition of his own critique. Published in the fall of 1920, Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism had a new preface by V. I. Nevskii, who had already attacked Bogdanov in the controversy over the Proletkult's proletarian university in Moscow. Although Nevskii did not mention the Proletkult explicitly, he sharply criticized Bogdanov's recent writings, including articles that had appeared in Proletarian Culture .[21]

However, it was not until Lenin discovered disturbing evidence about the Proletkult movement's size and grandiose ambitions that he moved to force its subordination. During the Second Comintern Congress in August 1920 Proletkultists founded an international branch of their organization with Lunacharskii at its head. Its stated aspiration was to spread


proletarian culture around the world.[22] Apparently alarmed by the Proletkult's pretensions, Lenin wrote Mikhail Pokrovskii, second in command of Narkompros, with some urgent questions.[23] What was the legal status of the Proletkult? Who were its leaders? Where did it get its funding? What had it accomplished? Pokrovskii replied that the Proletkult was an independent organization under Narkompros control. Lenin also received reports about its leaders, finances, and cultural programs from the central Proletkultists Vladimir Faidysh and Vasilii Ignatov. They did not, however, pass on widespread doubts about the cohesiveness of the organization or the mixed social composition of its membership. Instead they wrote that the Proletkult united some four hundred thousand proletarians.[24]

Faced with news of an autonomous organization that claimed such a significant working-class following, Lenin quickly took steps to end its independence. The Proletkult national congress, scheduled to meet in Moscow from October 5 to October 12, 1920, provided him with an opportunity. He charged Lunacharskii to inform delegates that their organization would now be absorbed by Narkompros. But Lunacharskil, who had long defended Proletkult interests, went back on the agreement; his speech to the Proletkult congress contained no mention of a pending change in the organization's status.[25] Lenin reacted immediately, calling a series of Polit-


buro meetings to discuss the Proletkult and to draw up proposals for its subordination.[26] From this point on Lenin circumvented Lunacharskii and dealt directly with the central Proletkult's faction of party members, headed by Valerian Pletnev.

The national Proletkult had strong ties to the Communist Party. A full two–thirds of the conference delegates were Communists, as were all national leaders, except Bogdanov.[27] Nonetheless, they were not immediately convinced that the party's action was justified. Representatives from the Proletkult met with Lenin while the Politburo was working out its proposals. According to Lenin's notes of the meeting, they did not understand how Proletkult autonomy posed a threat to anyone.[28] The party faction had trouble convincing the assembled delegates to accept the central committee's proposal, which only passed after long debate and appeals to party discipline.[29]

Eventually, however, the Proletkult congress approved a five-point statement drafted by the Communist Party Central Committee.[30] The resolution made the Proletkult into a divi-


sion of the Narkompros bureaucracy that was accountable to the party for the content of its work. Perhaps to sweeten the pill, the party instructed Narkompros to ensure that the proletariat had the opportunity for free creative work within its establishments, which seemed to imply that Proletkult artistic activity might continue more or less unchanged.

This was only the opening gambit, however, in a long process of reorganization. A special plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee met many times in the late fall of 1920 to determine more precise guidelines for Proletkult work and to draft an explanation of the new situation for local party and Proletkult activists. The end result was the central committee decree "On the Proletkults," published in Pravda on December 1, 1920. The decree was less an explanation than a denunciation; it excoriated Proletkult leaders, its organizational practice, and the movement's understanding of its cultural mission.[31]

The Pravda letter was scathingly critical of the Proletkult's demand for autonomy, which it portrayed as a petty-bourgeois attempt to establish an institutional base outside of Soviet power. Proletkult independence had attracted many socially alien elements, among them futurists, decadents, and proponents of "idealist and anti-Marxist philosophies." Although Bogdanov was not directly mentioned, he was also a target. The central committee linked the Proletkult to "antiMarxist, God-building" groups of intellectuals who were now trying to manipulate the working class with their "semibourgeois philosophical 'systems' and schemes." The party would have done something sooner had it not been hindered by the military emergency. Now that the Civil War was ending, it could finally turn its attention to the important problems of culture and education.[32]

The central committee then appealed to the working-class


masses, who had been fed "Machism and futurism" under the guise of proletarian culture. The party in no way wanted to stop efforts by worker-intellectuals to improve themselves in the arts. Rather, it hoped that these efforts would be placed in the hands of the laboring classes so that the workers' government could help the workers' intelligentsia.[33] When read between the lines, this statement deftly turned Proletkult leaders into the very bourgeois intellectuals they claimed to oppose. The party, not the Proletkult, emerged as the defender of "real, authentic" proletarian culture.[34]

This attack proved to have much more serious consequences for the movement than the formal loss of autonomy that had been approved at the national congress. The precise terms of the Proletkult's new bureaucratic status evolved slowly through lengthy and complicated agreements with state, union, and party organs. In the meantime, the party's critique appeared in the foremost newspaper in the country. Unlike previous criticisms, the Pravda letter discredited the organization on political grounds. In the hard winter of 1920–1921, when hunger riots and strikes erupted throughout the country, the Proletkult was branded as a potentially dangerous, anti-Soviet institution.

Responding with shock and outrage, the Proletkult central leadership drew up a response, "An Unavoidable Explanation," which it tried to publish in Pravda without success.[35] This document revealed the enormous gap between Proletkultists' self-perceptions and the central committee's views. It began somewhat disingenuously, expressing gratitude to the party for finally showing an interest in Proletkult work. But the rest of the text refuted the substance and purpose of the party's letter point by point. The Proletkult was loyal to the party and the Soviet regime, something clearly shown


by the large number of Communists in the organization. It did not shelter "anti-Marxist" groups; in fact it kept better control over its specialists than did other Soviet institutions. The presidium also insisted that the Proletkult did not promote "Machists and God-builders" because both Bogdanov and Lunacharskii had long since abandoned these ideas. Bogdanov's works were now published by government and party presses, and he was an instructor at the party-controlled Sverdlov University. Lunacharskii had inspired enough confidence to be appointed Commissar of Enlightenment. As for the charge of endorsing futurism, they had openly denounced such trends.[36]

Proletkultists were dismayed that the party had decided to print an attack that was filled with such unexpected accusations. They had heard rumors that the letter was a reaction to agitation within the Proletkult protesting the loss of institutional autonomy, but "we do not know of any publicly printed statement of this kind." In conclusion, they held out hope for better, more fruitful relations between the Proletkult and the party in the future.[37] But this plea had no effect, nor did a special delegation that urged Lenin to change his mind.[38] Its avenues for protest now exhausted, the Proletkult had no choice but to begin a painful process of reassessment.

Reorganization and Decline

The Proletkult's subordination to Narkompros irrevocably altered the movement's place in Soviet cultural life. Its claim to be the "third path" to proletarian power, bombastic in the best of times, now had lost all credence. Although few participants wanted the organization to assume a modest role as a


Narkompros subsection, it was difficult for them to articulate a new mission within the narrow limits set by the party and the state. To make matters worse, the party's intervention sparked discord within the organization and between the Proletkult and its numerous cultural competitors.

The first efforts to define a new identity began at a national plenum in mid-December 1920. Called to discuss the practical consequences of the party's letter, the plenum resulted in a new central leadership. Lebedev-Polianskii, the national president, found himself in a minority at the meeting. He opposed handing over discussions about organizational status to the Proletkult's party faction, perhaps because this would have excluded Bogdanov, who was not a party member. Moreover, he did not even want to consider any fundamental changes in the Proletkult's cultural direction. When his proposals were soundly defeated, Lebedev-Polianskii tendered his resignation, a move that was quickly accepted.[39]

Writing under the pseudonym of V. Kunavin shortly after his resignation, Lebedev-Polianskii took the opportunity to express his views on the Proletkult's subordination in the Narkompros journal Creation (Tvorchestvo ). He did not attack the party for its intervention, but he did wonder why it had chosen to move against the Proletkult when trade unions remained independent. As always, Lebedev-Polianskii was most critical of the state bureaucracy. The Proletkult was not strong enough to imbue Narkompros with the proletarian energy it so desperately needed; instead, it might easily acquire all of Narkompros's problems. Already Proletkult work was too similar to state programs, and unification would only increase the danger that the Proletkult would lose its distinctive character. The Proletkult should turn to factories and solicit a pure proletarian following. It should eschew education and propaganda and pursue scientific research and


creative programs. Only such a path would save it from disappearing forever inside the state bureaucracy.[40]

With Lebedev-Polianskii's departure the Proletkult lost its most stalwart defender of autonomy. His place was filled by Valerian Pletnev, the same energetic playwright from Moscow who had led the party faction to accept the Proletkult's subordination. A former worker, Pletnev had never been part of the Vpered circle, and his presence seemed designed to reassure Proletkult critics. His first step was to begin a rigorous reevaluation of Proletkult practice that addressed many of the Communist Party's complaints.[41] Under Pletnev's guidance the national organization decided to use the Proletkult's forces to help rebuild Soviet society in the wake of the Civil War. The Proletkult would devote part of its energies to "production propaganda," an idea proposed by Glavpolitprosvet to popularize labor discipline. It would also work to implement the party's cultural and political programs.[42]

But in crucial areas the restructured leadership refused to acquiesce to the party's critique. Significantly, Pletnev made no effort to remove Bogdanov from national prominence. Bogdanov participated in at least part of the December plenum and was a delegate to the 1921 national convention. The next issue of Proletarian Culture prominently displayed one of his articles on "organizational science."[43] And despite the Corn-


munist Party's hostile polemics against the Proletkult's approach, the plenum maintained its commitment to proletarian culture. Indeed, national leaders proclaimed that Proletkult ideas had to be publicized even more broadly in order to intensify the struggle against bourgeois culture and bourgeois life-styles. Nor would Proletkultists limit themselves to work in artistic studios alone, a frequent demand by Narkompros activists. Instead, Proletkultists reaffirmed the importance of clubs; they also insisted that the organization needed to expand its very small network of science studios, a proposal championed by Bogdanov himself.[44] Thus the decisions of the December plenum made clear that even without institutional autonomy the Proletkult intended to remain the proletariat's cultural advocate.

In taking these strong positions the national leaders of the Proletkult seemed unaware that the cultural and political landscape was changing rapidly around them. The Proletkult was not the only organization to face severe party scrutiny. Narkompros itself was in the throes of reorganization by the winter of 1920. Because of party intervention, Glavpolitprosvet became a much more ambitious enterprise, theoretically taking charge of all political education for Narkompros, the soviets, the trade unions, the army, and the Proletkult. This expansion made Glavpolitprosvet a much more formidable adversary than the Adult Education Division had ever been.[45]

Trade unions also felt the sting of reorganization. In March 1921 the momentous Tenth Party Congress ended their pretensions to a powerful economic role. Against the backdrop of the Kronstadt rebellion and other threats to Bolshevik power, the Workers' Opposition, labeled as a dangerous syndicalist


deviation, was easily defeated. Although unions retained their formal independence, their duties were henceforth restricted mainly to didactic tasks. They were to be the schools of communism, transmission belts between the Communist Party and the proletarian masses. And the more their economic duties declined, the more the unions began to emerge as serious competitors to the Proletkult in the fields of culture and education.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy made it even harder for the Proletkult to maintain its former position. Inaugurated at the Tenth Party Congress, the New Economic Policy marked the beginning of a fiscal crisis for all state institutions. The government abandoned forced requisitions from the peasantry, which dramatically lowered state revenues. As a result, there was less funding for all state services, social services in particular. Narkompros's share of the budget declined from 9.4 percent in 1920 to 2.2 percent in 1921.[46]

Despite these ominous signs, Pletnev began negotiations to preserve what he could of the Proletkult's independence. A savvy bargainer, he obtained permission from Narkompros to maintain Proletkult clubs as long as they registered with Glavpolitprosvet. In addition, he gained grudging approval for the idea of science studios. Most important, Pletnev won the theoretical assurance that local organizations could retain control over their own budgets.[47] He also bargained with the trade unions. At the national trade union convention in May 1921, where labor leaders confirmed their new role as the schools of communism, Pletnev was on hand to defend Proletkult interests. "Socialist culture can only grow from a foundation built by workers themselves," he exclaimed to an ap-


plauding audience.[48] At a special gathering of union cultural workers a few months later he convinced them to send particularly talented workers to Proletkult studios. In return he promised to let Proletkult factory organizations be counted as part of the unions' cultural apparatus.[49]

These bureaucratic wranglings were designed to protect the Proletkult's cultural territory, but they did very little to safeguard its extensive provincial networks. Indeed, there were signs that the central Proletkult saw the initial stages of the crisis as an opportunity to cleanse the organization of its troublesome elements, its nonproletarian members, and its stubbornly independent local factions. When Pletnev appeared at a meeting for trade union cultural workers in September 1921, at least half of the three hundred Proletkult divisions that had existed just a year before had already disappeared. Nonetheless, he referred to this decline as "normal." "When the slogan of proletarian culture was spread to the masses, Proletkults started growing like mushrooms even in places where there were no preconditions for creative cultural work, which we want to spread primarily among the industrial proletariat."[50]

While the center tried to save the Proletkult's institutional integrity, the complex network established during the Civil War was rapidly disintegrating. At the local level the Proletkult's loss of independence made it an easy target for rival circles that wanted to expand their cultural resources. Many Politprosvet divisions interpreted their new power as an excuse to disband Proletkult operations. The Kologriv circle, for example, was summarily closed by the local Politprosvet office.[51] Narkompros workers also resorted to harassment,


refusing to hand over Proletkult funds. In addition, they sometimes absorbed parts of local organizations' infrastructure, particularly their clubs.[52]

The exceedingly critical tone of the Communist Party's attack turned many local Communists against local Proletkult organizations. In Iaroslavl the party committee closed down Proletkult operations. Local leaders in Saratov reported that Proletkult-party relations had soured so much after December 1920 that the party had decided to close down several regional circles. Proletkultists in Samara and Tver complained that responsible workers who were party members had been assigned other duties. These reassignments seriously depleted these organizations' staffs.[53]

Unions also began to look at the Proletkult as a source of supplies and staff. In Tver, for example, labor leaders tried to take over all Proletkult clubs. The Samara union bureaucracy attempted to subordinate the entire organization as part of its cultural apparatus. In Orenburg the Proletkult faced such hostility from the local party committee that it voluntarily surrendered to union control for its own protection.[54]

But it was the fiscal consequences of the New Economic Policy that had the most detrimental effects of all. Because most local organizations had never established financial independence, they were exceedingly vulnerable when government resources dried up. Many had enjoyed some help from local allies, but now these allies faced their own constraints. During the Civil War the Shuia factory Proletkult had re-


ceived free rent, heat, and lighting from the factory management. But with the new financial policies of 1921, which required balanced factory budgets, the plant demanded payment for these services.[55]

The financial crisis at the center meant decreased funds all along the organizational chain. Because the central Proletkult secured its own needs first, it had significantly less to send to provincial and city groups. They in turn had less to pass on to those circles that were dependent on them. The lowest level organizations, factory Proletkults and clubs, suffered the most. Under these circumstances small town circles with weak or nonexistent ties to the national bureaucracy simply disappeared. Local Proletkults carried on their own internal purges, closing down affiliates they could no longer support or those that appeared to be conducting "strictly educational work."[56] The Tver provincial Proletkult encompassed four circles in 1920; by the end of 1921 only one remained.[57]

The situation of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Proletkult in the first year of the New Economic Policy illustrates how financial hardships and cultural rivalries worked together to undermine the organization. Problems began in early 1921. With the status of the Proletkult now in question the IvanovoVoznesensk branch began to have difficulties with the local party bureau and with unions. Local leaders complained that party criticism had driven some workers away. Because of financial problems, the Proletkult had to reduce its stipends for studio members to such a low level that it could no longer support those with families. The Textile Workers' Union, once an ally, now challenged Proletkult control of factory clubs.


Even the intervention of the city's Politprosvet division on the Proletkult's behalf could not mitigate union hostility. The local president, Olga Vladimirova, painted a very depressing picture. Club work was dying out and studio participants had stopped receiving rations. "Students are literally starving," she concluded.[58]

In Smolensk cultural activities were also severely restricted during 1921. The organization had no particular problems with other local groups, but it also received no help; funds from the center were simply not enough to cover costs. The Proletkult had to reduce its membership from two hundred to eighty-five and to shut down both the literature and music studios. Its one remaining regional affiliate in Iartsevo was about to close because the local Politprosvet refused to hand over funds. The Iartsevo president blamed both the central and the provincial Proletkults for his plight. They should have sent money or at least instructions on how to help his organization survive.[59]

These examples show how little central negotiations had done to stave off local crises. Indeed, some participants began to wonder if national leaders were interested in the Proletkult's continued survival as a mass organization. Despite the alarming news coming in from the provinces, Pletnev could still describe the Proletkult's decline in 1921 as "normal," a choice of words that implied that the expansion during the Civil War had been somehow abnormal. According to this interpretation the crisis was in fact an opportunity to cleanse the organization of its alien elements. However, Pletnev would soon be shocked to discover that the Proletkult's collapse had only just begun.


The Cultural Vanguard

In the fall of 1921 Proletkult delegates gathered for yet another national congress, but this time a very different mood prevailed than just a year before. The sharp decline in resources and the resulting drop in membership had severely strained the relations between the central organization and its provincial affiliates. As if these problems were not enough, the organization faced renewed questions about its political reliability.

The first crisis broke even before the conference opened. An anonymous pamphlet titled We are Collectivists (My—kollektivisty ) came to the attention of the Proletkult central leadership and the Communist Party Central Committee. The authors, whose identity has never been established, declared themselves a Communist Party faction with links to the Proletkult and the Workers' Opposition. They denounced the New Economic Policy, accused the Communist Party of abandoning the principles of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and claimed Bogdanov and the Vperedist tradition to be the real inspiration for communism and for the Proletkult movement.[60]

The Communist Party's reaction was swift. Bukharin published an attack in Pravda that called the platform an example of "Bogdanovian Menshevism" and denounced Bogdanov for his passive and false approach to revolutionary change. A small number of people, he warned, wanted to make the Proletkult the basis of a Menshevik revival.[61] Although the Politburo reaffirmed its earlier rulings on political orthodoxy


within the Proletkult, the Proletkult's party faction published its own statement, rejecting all attempts to use the organization for "narrow group interests."[62]

The anonymous pamphlet altered the official Proletkult stance toward its most important theorist. Although Bogdanov was present as a delegate at the November gathering, he was not reelected to the Proletkult governing board. It was at this time, not in 1920, that Bogdanov was relieved of his national position.[63] Unlike Bukharin and other party critics, Pletnev never denounced Bogdanov by name, except to acknowledge that the collectivists looked to his work for inspiration. Still, he was quick to distance the Proletkult from charges of "collectivist" sympathies.

The collectivist platform was quickly pushed to the sidelines of the Proletkult conference. It is not even clear how much support it ever received. Nonetheless, the collectivists' denunciation of party policies under the New Economic Policy forced Proletkult leaders to address this dramatic shift in the country's course. By initiating an era of class compromise the New Economic Policy challenged the very reason for the Proletkult's existence. How would an organization devoted to the pursuit of proletarian dictatorship justify itself in this new social environment?

Pletnev attempted to turn this obvious weakness into a strength. He insisted that the Proletkult was more important than ever precisely because of the New Economic Policy. The economic shift encouraged the petty bourgeoisie to consolidate its alien ideology. Therefore, workers' organizations had to unite in an army against such influences, with the Proletkult taking the lead. If the New Economic Policy marked a retreat in economics and politics, the Proletkult would not


allow a retreat on the ideological front.[64] In essence, he argued that the New Economic Policy provided the Proletkult with a new and powerful justification for its continued existence.

This remarkable self-confidence in the face of hostile criticism also marked Pletnev's dealings with local Proletkult affiliates. He was determined to establish central control over local work, thereby annihilating the long-standing animosities between Moscow and the provinces. His preferred tactic was to ignore local problems altogether, brushing aside complaints that the central and Moscow organizations were appropriating most of the scarce resources for themselves.[65]

Pletnev continued to assert that institutional decline thus far had been positive and had cleansed the Proletkult of the alien elements that had crept in during the Civil War. Although it was true, he granted, that organizations like the one in the small town of Iarensk, Vologda province, were dying out, this was a positive development because there were no workers in those organizations anyway. "Maybe there is one shoemaker who is somehow organized, but that does not give us the right to have a Proletkult; we are an organization for the industrial proletariat."[66] Making the message even clearer, Pletnev proclaimed: "At the present time, under these conditions, the Proletkult cannot be a mass organization. It is and will be an organization for cultural and creative forces of the vanguard of the proletarian masses."[67]

This vanguardist vision dominated the discussions on creative work as well. None of the suggestions advanced by national leaders was suitable for a mass organization. In her presentation on club work Raisa Ginzburg stressed the need for advanced, well-educated proletarian participants. Similarly, in a long and complex lecture on the theater, Valentin


Smyshliaev derisively condemned most provincial theatrical practices and insisted that the Proletkult had to back experimental projects. And Ilia Trainin, outlining existing practices in the visual arts, suggested that the Proletkult open a central training school with a rigorous four-year program.[68]

The vanguardism of Kirillov's speech on literature was particularly extreme. He wanted to disband all provincial studios and use the money to support a handful of excellent students in Moscow. Because the financial situation of even the best students was desperate, why waste money on the provinces? "The severe, cruel facts of life have shown us that those things that we hoped and dreamed about in our work are very, very far away." Rather than squandering money on untalented workers, the Proletkult should support those who had already proven themselves.[69] This radical elitism was too much even for Pletnev, who argued that the Proletkult had to remain open to those workers who dreamed of one day becoming artists.[70]

As with earlier efforts, congress resolutions outlining new relations with unions and Narkompros did little to resolve local hostilities.[71] The Communist Party was also ambivalent. In late November the Politburo sent a circular to local party committees with a mixed message about future cooperation. It urged local bureaus to support the Proletkult as "one of the party's mechanisms (apparaty ) for satisfying the proletariat's cultural demands," hardly an enthusiastic backing. At the same time, it directed Communists within the Proletkult to cleanse the organization of petty-bourgeois elements, collectivists, and the remnants of Bogdanov's philosophy.[72]


Finances remained the most serious problem of all, and the Proletkult's contradictory relationship to the state was only exacerbated by the fiscal crisis. Throughout its history the Proletkult had demanded independence while simultaneously insisting that the government foot the bill. But now Narkompros's resources were dwindling, and the Proletkult's continued demands for more money and more freedom of action hardly encouraged generosity. By the beginning of 1922 even national leaders had to acknowledge that the organization was in desperate straits. Appealing to Glavpolitprosvet for more funds, they claimed that they could now support no more than fifty or sixty local organizations. Any further reduction would endanger the cause of proletarian culture and the Proletkult's struggle against petty-bourgeois ideology.[73]

Finally acknowledging the gravity of the situation, in February 1922 the Proletkult leadership organized a central committee plenum. By now, all traces of optimism had faded. The delegates, from fifteen provincial cities as well as Moscow and Petrograd, were faced with the prospect of carrying out an organizational purge. The main item on the agenda was to compose a list of organizations the central Proletkult could still support. Only thirty-eight existing organizations made it on the list, with twelve new ones slated for opening (or reopening) in particularly important industrial areas.[74]

The process of elimination appears to have been fairly simple. Organizations that had not maintained close ties to the center, like those in Klin and Kursk, were struck from the list, as were those in areas without large proletarian populations. The plenum also eliminated groups that had not developed "successful" cultural programs as well as those with such


serious financial problems that they required significant central support to remain in operation. The Omsk Proletkult (not represented at the conference) was summarily closed because it was in difficult financial straits and was said to have weak ties to local workers.[75] Leonid Tsinovskii, the representative from Archangel, chronicled a long history of external opposition and internal disputes in his city. With no local resources for the Proletkult to draw on the future of the Archangel organization lay in the hands of the plenum. Another local leader, Nikolai Beliaev, recounted how the Tambov Proletkult, one of the first groups, had declined at the end of the Civil War and now faced extinction unless the center promised more aid. Both the Archangel and Tambov circles were victims of the reorganization.[76]

Through this radical retrenchment the center hoped to redirect Proletkult resources to the best local organizations and to find funds for new groups in important industrial areas. The plenum also intensified the process of centralization. New allocations of staff and support openly favored Moscow and the central Proletkult administration. Narkompros had authorized rations for one thousand staff members and fifteen hundred student scholarships in 1922. The plenum gave 435 staff rations (43.5 percent) and 690 scholarships (46 percent) to Moscow and the central studios. Talented workers from the provinces would have to make their way to the capital, concluded the national Proletkult leader Vladimir Faidysh.[77]

Despite their scale even these reductions proved unrealistic. By mid-1922 Glavpolitprosvet had lowered ration sub-


sidies by yet another third,[78] and local organizations complained that they were not receiving even these small amounts. None of the new organizations planned at the February plenum was ever opened and local closures continued. Of the twenty-six factory organizations on the official list, only ten were still in operation by the end of 1922.[79]

Continual financial difficulties forced the central organization to reassess its position once again. The plans at the February plenum had a certain logic to them—support the strongest organizations at the expense of the weak and reach out to areas with large factory populations. But there was no way to portray the continued collapse in a positive light. Reports from the provinces were grim. Local organizations were dissolving because there was no money and no one left to lead them. For example, despite the fact that it had the support of local workers, the Rostov on Don Proletkult had closed because it had no funds and repeated requests for staff had gone unanswered. The remaining students had left for Narkompros studios or the local workers' faculty. The Kuznetsov Proletkult shut down for similar reasons, even though the center had singled out Kuznetsov as a particularly important area for Proletkult work.[80]

At this point Pletnev and his colleagues agreed that it was senseless to apply to either Narkompros or the Communist Party for more aid. The only possible source of funds remaining was the union cultural bureaucracy. In order to gain more energetic labor support Pletnev proposed yet another national congress in the fall of 1922, this one to coincide with the fifth national trade union convention.[81] There was no more cutting


to be done, and there were no more reorganizational schemes to be tried. Nonetheless, the Proletkult president still harbored the hope that if he could make his case eloquently enough, the organization would find the resources to help it survive.

On the Ideological Front: The Proletarian Culture Debates

By the fall of 1922 the Proletkult was a small and embattled organization, only a shadow of the movement that had claimed almost half a million members two years before. Its membership had fallen to just over twenty-five hundred students organized in twenty local circles.[82] Its once impressive publication network had collapsed. Excluded from the state budget, Proletarian Culture put out its last issue in 1921.[83] The Moscow-based Furnace , now representing the national organization, was the Proletkult's only remaining major journal.

Yet despite its drastically reduced size, the Proletkult became the subject of a major debate in the Soviet press. To be sure, by now the Proletkult hardly posed enough of a threat to initiate such controversy. But these discussions were only partly about the fate of the organization. They were also a test of the very notion of proletarian culture and provided an excellent vehicle to discuss some of the "burning questions" that the New Economic Policy had raised for the Communist Party and the state. What was the correct way to bring about the cultural transformation of Soviet Russia? Who posed a greater danger—experts and intellectuals trained under capitalism or a backward and disaffected working class?

This broad discussion of proletarian culture, approved by the Politburo itself, gave Pletnev a remarkable chance to take


the Proletkult's case to the nation.[84] Although the organization was a suspect ally, its outspoken critique of bourgeois ideology won it some sympathy among those who shared the Proletkultists' concern that the New Economic Policy might inaugurate a period of bourgeois reaction. Such fears were raised repeatedly at the Eleventh Party Congress, and Bukharin, writing in the prestigious party journal Under the Banner of Marxism (Pod znamenem marksizma ), warned that history had offered many examples of a vanquished people imposing their culture on the conquerors.[85] If the Proletkult did not have the right answers, for people like Bukharin, at least it raised the right questions.

Understandably, Pletnev was particularly concerned about the Proletkult's future, which he saw as synonymous with the future of proletarian culture. His opening article, "On the Ideological Front," was an extensive statement of Proletkult beliefs and philosophy. If Marxists were hostile to the Proletkult, that was simply because they did not understand it. Proletarian culture was the necessary antithesis to bourgeois culture, the necessary step before a real classless culture for all humanity could be achieved. Although proletarian culture would necessarily incorporate elements from all that had come before, it would relentlessly struggle against bourgeois individualism. The Proletkult was historically necessary to fight against bourgeois ideology.[86] The New Economic Policy was not mentioned explicitly in the article, but there were


transparent polemics against it everywhere. Pletnev spoke out against class compromise, the use of experts, and the participation of the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia in his organization. Proletarian culture, the necessary antidote to the current ills of the country, could only be made by the workers' hands.

"On the Ideological Front" was also a plea for more faith in the proletariat's creative powers. The working class had the force to conceive a new science and art, "even in this wild, uncultured, semiliterate, and impoverished country." Using strikingly Bogdanovist language, Pletnev defended the notion of proletarian science by insisting that the proletariat had to find new systems of knowledge, new ties between the disciplines, and a monistic understanding of the world. Moving from science to art, he proclaimed that the new culture must be made by worker artists, people who aimed to change the world, not just to beautify it. Perhaps the Proletkult had not made much progress in the four years of its existence, but one had to remember that the bourgeoisie had taken five centuries to develop its culture. "Should we consider the first experimental steps in this direction as utopian, as an unnecessary luxury?" he asked rhetorically.[87]

Pletnev answered his own question one month later. In an article entitled "In the Proletkult," he reiterated and expanded his description of Proletkult practice, praising its literary achievements, its theatrical output (especially his own plays), and its new trend toward production art. He also incorporated a novel explanation for the Proletkult's decline. The organization had grown much too large by late 1920 and the center could not provide enough resources to support such an extensive network. Therefore, from the 1920 congress onward it had deliberately reduced the number of local affiliates until there were only thirty-eight by November 1921.[88] By citing these deflated figures, which contradicted those he had


put forward a year before, the Proletkult president apparently hoped to show that his demands for continued state support were reasonable and modest, and that the collapse of the national network had taken place at least in part by design. He ended with a plea for continued subsidies: the effects of the New Economic Policy in 1922 had reduced the Proletkult well below its 1921 level. Now there were only twenty organizations and requests were coming from industrial areas to open new ones. He had heard rumors that the government might remove state support altogether. "If there is a wish to kill the Proletkult, then taking away government support will surely accomplish this."[89]

But this emotional defense served only to mobilize the Proletkult's opponents. Nadezhda Krupskaia was the first to respond. Although she did not dispute that the revolution would inspire a new class ideology, she separated the issue of proletarian culture from the Proletkult organization, which was too limited, too cut off from the masses, and too uncritical of bourgeois art to create a new culture. The proletariat did not come to power to lord it over other classes; instead it had to convince them of the rightness of its views. The Proletkult had much to be proud of, according to Krupskaia, for its studios had introduced many workers to artistic education. But she denied that it had created a uniquely proletarian art, and she rejected the idea that such an art, when it did emerge, would be made by workers alone. Proletarian culture would come from life itself; it could not be "hatched."[90]

Krupskaia's criticisms were mild compared to Lenin's. Outraged by Pletnev's first article, Lenin immediately sent off a protest to Bukharin for publishing it in Pravda . He then began to plan with Iakov Iakovlev, second in command at Agitprop, for a full-scale onslaught against Pletnev.[91] Iakov-


lev's long response, written with Lenin's aid, found nothing of value in Pletnev's defense of Proletkult work. Pletnev's ideas on science were silly and mystical. The Proletkult had no business insisting on a rigid, class-exclusive approach. Now was the time to make peace with the peasantry and the specialists. Iakovlev also lashed out at the Proletkult's artistic practice, particularly its plays.[92]

The most interesting part of this sustained critique was the picture it painted of the Russian proletariat. Iakovlev doubted that the present-day working class had the knowledge or the experience to fulfill the tasks that Pletnev described. His opponent showed absolutely no appreciation of the cultural conditions of present-day Russia, chided Iakovlev. There were aspects of bourgeois culture that were definitely needed to fight against Russia's cultural backwardness (nekul'turnost '). The years of war and revolution had robbed the proletariat of its best elements, leaving semiliterates, peasants, and speculators (meshochniki ) in their place. Instead of these "real" workers, who still prayed to the holy mother on the shop floor, Pletnev offered a fantastic vision of the working class. "Some elements of 'fantasy' were unavoidable, especially in the first period of the revolution when the working class of Russia shook the entire edifice of the bourgeois world with its mighty blows." But now the time for fantasy was over, Iakovlev concluded.[93]

Such a somber assessment of the proletariat and its skills echoed Lenin's own disparaging comments at the Eleventh Party Congress, where he insisted that Russian factories were now filled with all kinds of "accidental elements."[94] This analysis led Lenin to reject the whole idea of proletarian culture, a new step in the controversy. Before the country could


even consider tossing out what was false in the heritage of capitalism, it had to attain those accomplishments necessary for socialism, such as literacy and a disciplined work ethic.[95] As Lenin wrote in one of his last articles, "Better Fewer, But Better," flippant talk of proletarian culture had blinded too many people to the country's cultural inadequacies. "For a start we should be satisfied with real bourgeois culture; for a start we should avoid the cruder types of prebourgeois culture, that is, bureaucratic culture and serf culture, etc. In matters of culture, haste and sweeping measures are most harmful."[96]

This acrimonious discussion accomplished exactly the opposite of what Pletnev had hoped. Although the organization was not disbanded, its upcoming conference was canceled and the Politburo voted to make it financially self-supporting. It would only provide enough funds to insure that the Proletkult did not collapse entirely.[97] Addressing this move at a Politprosvet conference a month later, Lunacharskii assumed a bittersweet tone. He conceded that the Proletkult turned out to be more expensive than expected and had brought few concrete results. But if the organization did not survive, they would have to find another way to allow the most talented workers to find their own approach to culture, science, and education.[98]

The result of the new cutbacks, predictably enough, was that the Proletkult shrank still further. By November 1922 the central organization had concluded that it did not have enough funds to cover heating costs for local organizations.


By December it was running a deficit. In January 1924 there were only eleven Proletkult organizations left in the entire Soviet Union.[99] The ideological aftershocks of these debates were just as severe. They put all advocates of working-class creativity on the defensive in the early years of the New Economic Policy. But for the Proletkult their effects were even more disruptive. Proletarian creation and artistic expression were now separated from the Proletkult as a social and cultural movement.

The short, simple answer to the question of why the Proletkult declined is obvious: financial hardships were the primary cause. From late 1920 onward the organization experienced one cutback after another, and each one had serious effects on the range and quality of Proletkult activities. But this abbreviated answer only conceals another question. Why did state, party, and local institutions end their financial support? To answer this question, we must unravel a complex tangle of practical and ideological explanations.

At a very basic level the Proletkult's demise seems almost predetermined. Members of the Communist Party's central leadership, and Lenin in particular, distrusted any institution that demanded independence, from trade unions and party factions to opposing political parties. They could hardly be expected to tolerate an organization that not only aspired to autonomy but also claimed a large proletarian following. In addition, Lenin had a special grievance against the organization he associated with Bogdanov. Once he took note of the size and scope of Proletkult activities in the fall of 1920, the organization was fated for radical change.

The end of the Civil War and the introduction of the New Economic Policy only hastened the Proletkult's collapse. The


New Economic Policy marked the beginning of fiscal austerity measures for all state organs as the country struggled to recover from the long years of war. In the process most educational and cultural institutions suffered severe cutbacks. But it is also fair to say that the Proletkult was singled out as a special victim. Given the changing needs of the Soviet state and its shrinking assets, the government was hardly willing to finance an organization with dubious cultural accomplishments and a suspect political reputation.

The New Economic Policy also marked a change in the ideological climate of the Soviet Union. It initiated an era in which the radical language of class war was increasingly out of place. The party encouraged alliances between workers and peasants and between workers and the experts needed to rebuild an ailing economy. Of course the Proletkult had included experts and peasants in its activities from the outset; it was never an exclusively proletarian organization. Still, central leaders had always loudly condemned the participation of other social groups. Their class-exclusive pronouncements were part of a general chorus during the Civil War, but now they appeared querulous and even dangerous.

Proletkult leaders continued to portray themselves as stalwart defenders of proletarian culture, but they no longer had a large movement behind them to help them realize their goals. A few thousand participants, no matter what their quality, could hardly evoke the same messianic, enthusiastic appeal as the rambling, chaotic organization of the Civil War years. It did not seem utopian to think that such small numbers could change the ethical and cultural basis of an entire society. Instead it seemed quixotic. The institution that had placed proletarian culture on the revolutionary agenda in 1917 was pushed to the sidelines and was no longer able to claim a formative role in Soviet cultural life.


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