The First All-Russian Congress of Proletkults. October 11, 1920
Proletcult (Union of Proletarian Cultural-Educational Organizations) strove to create a new proletarian art. It had come into existence as an organization before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, but the movement had a much longer history. During the early years of the revolution it was characterized both by a semi-official status because of its patronage by the People’s Commissariat of Education and by intense debate among its adherents as to just exactly what it stood for. Finally, in October 1920 a congress of Proletcult organizations from around the country convened. The congress inadvertently brought to a head the potential conflict inherent in the claim of Proletcult or any other organization, to be an independent spokesman for proletarian interests, given the Communist Party’s own demand for a monopoly in that role.
Original Source: Griadushchee (Petrograd), No. 12-13, (1920), pp. 21-22.
The First All-Russian Congress of Proletkults took place October 5-11 in Moscow. It had been proposed to convene a second All-Russian Conference of Proletkults, but, as over 400 people gathered from all ends of Russia-including 211 delegates with voting rights, 89 delegates with consultative rights and 107 guests–and as these delegates represented a half-million workers in 1,384 Proletkults (including 35 province and city, 247 district and 826 factory Proletkults), it was decided to proclaim the conference a congress. The party composition of the delegates is interesting. Excluding the guests, of the 300 delegates 197 were Communists, 3 candidates for Communist Party membership, 5 sympathizers, 89 non-party, 5 anarchists and 1 Bundist.
The Congress of Proletkults was opened the evening of October 5 by the Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Proletkults, Comrade Lebedev-Polianskii. It elected a presidium of the Congress, confirmed the rules for its work and announced the order of the reports. Greetings to the Congress were received from many organizations, including … [list follows]
The work of the Congress began October 6 with the report of Comrade Lebedev-Polianskii about the activity of the All-Russian Central Committee of Proletkults. Referring to the difficult conditions under which the Central Committee worked-shortage of personnel, the impossibility during two years to convene a congress or conference—the speaker noted that life itself gave rise to Proletkults across all of Russia, including the Urals, Ukraine, Siberia, the Caucasus, and that there is a Proletkult even in Georgia, where it suffers under the displeasure of a Menshevik government. Today the idea of Proletkult is finding a reception even among West-European workers, and that is why, at the time of the Second Congress of the Communist International, an international bureau of Proletkults was created. Although an estimate of the size of Proletkults in 1919 was done only 6 January 1920, and the estimate for 1920 was done at the end of July 1920, nonetheless the Proletkults grew rapidly in both numbers and quality. They put out more than twenty proletarian journals, united about 80,000 workers in theatrical, musical, artistic and literary studios, and published more than a hundred proletarian writers.
The musical and theatrical studios of the Proletkults and many proletarian writers traveled around the fronts, despite the hardships, and had a strong impact on the moral of the Red Army, inspiring it toward victory. In the fine arts and poetry, Proletkult workers led the struggle against cubism and futurism and identified a significant stratum of worker-artists and poets.
After a long and lively exchange of opinions about the report, it was approved. The evening session the same day approved the report of Comrade A. A. Bogdanov, ‘”The Path of Proletarian Creativity,” in which he showed that any creative work is a variety of labor and that in any labor there is an element of creativity, which expresses itself in the combinations and divisions. The session also approved the report of Comrade Fal’kner-Smit, “The Important Stages of Proletarian Science.”
The morning session of October 7 heard the greeting of People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Comrade Lunacharskii, in the name of the international bureau of Proletkults. He reported that it was proposed to establish an international publishing house and to guarantee the full autonomy of Proletkult. Then he read a report “About Professionalism in the Arts.” Comrade Lunacharskii emphasized that the three thousand peasant theaters which have appeared among us imitate the worst of bourgeois characteristics, putting on vulgar plays, and therefore it is necessary for the proletariat to approach professional artists critically, selecting only those who can contribute to the organization of a new communist art. Professionals either demonstrate a weak craft, looking to the past or gropingly take the first steps on new paths. The proletariat needs a mass monumental art, different from that of the professionals of the past, and a new communist content in this art. Only Proletkult has the strength to create this, if it does riot fall into amateurism.
That evening Comrade Lebedev-Polianskii gave a report about the extent and character of the work of Proletkult, in which he demonstrated that the basic work of Proletkult must be creative, with cultural-enlightenment work secondary. Proletkults must justify the results of their work to the broad masses of industrial workers, and not so much broaden as deepen and intensify their work.
Then the congress separated into sections-theatrical, fine arts, musical-vocal, literary, and organizational–the work of which proceeded on parallel lines. The theatrical section heard and accepted the report of comrade Smyshliaev, “The Theatrical Work of Proletkult,” the fine arts section the report of Comrade Ivanov, the musical-vocal section the report of Comrade Krasin, “Tasks and Methods of Work of the Music Departments of Proletkults, ” the literary section the report of comrade Sadofiev, “Tasks of Proletarian Literature,” and in the organizational section the report of comrade Ignatov. The resolutions will be published in the stenographic account of the Congress, so here we note only that the literary section adopted a resolution about freeing proletarian writers from non-literary duties in order that they can devote themselves entirely to literature, about the organization of publishing houses and literary studios-central and district-and about the founding of an instructors bureau at the Central Committee for help and for supervision locally. Candidates were nominated for the editorial board of an arts journal also: one from the Central Committee and four who were elected by the literary section (Kirillov and Sadofiev with 23 votes, Berdnikov and Arskii with 12 votes).
In the report on the organizational question it was proposed to organize in each Proletkult several sections: scientific, literature and publication, art, organization and instructors, finance, supplies, children’s and national minorities. It was proposed to found in Moscow a central artistic arena for displaying the creative achievements of all Proletkults. All members of the Central Committee arc obligated to serve a specified area.
The meetings of the sections occupied October 8 and 9. Then an All-Russian Central Committee of Proletkults was elected. The final meeting was on Monday, October 11, on the question of the subordination of the activity of Proletkult to the Politprosvet of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, which was being formed out of the former out-of-school section. It was decided in the interests of centralization of cultural-enlightenment work to subordinate Proletkult to the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.
On Sunday October 10 the Congress delegates viewed the exhibitions of fine arts of the Moscow, Petrograd and some provincial Proletkults, visited the Tretiakov Gallery and in the evening went to the theater. In general the Congress proceeded with great enthusiasm, which testified to the vitality of the Proletkult members, but the subordination of Proletkult to the Politprosvet of the Commissariat of Enlightenment perplexed many.