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7 The Proletkult in Crisis
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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.

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7 The Proletkult in Crisis
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