First All-Union Conference of Proletarian Writers, The Ideological Front and Literature. 1925
Original Source: L. Averbakh, ed., Zaproletarskaia literatura (Leningrad, 1926), pp. 83-90.
1) Artistic literature is a powerful weapon in the class war. If Marx’s declaration that “the ruling ideas of any time were always simply the ideas of the ruling classes” is true, then it is unarguable that the rule of the proletariat is incompatible with the rule of non-proletarian ideology, and in part of non-proletarian literature. If, in the period of its dictatorship, the proletariat does not gradually take possession of all ideological positions, it will cease to be the ruling class. Artistic literature in a class society not only cannot be neutral, but actively serves one class or another.
2) If all this is true for class societies in general, then it is particularly true for our contemporary epoch, an era of war and revolution, an era of the sharpest class warfare. That is why it is reactionary utopianism to talk as if, in the area of literature, there can be peaceful cooperation, peaceful competition of various literary-ideological outlooks. Bolshevism has continuously fought against this reactionary utopianism. The same laws of class warfare which operate in other fields of social life are applicable to the area of ideology, to the area of literature. Therefore, Bolshevism has continuously stood and stands now for the point of view of ideological irreconcilability, intolerance, in favor of the undoubted clarity of ideological line.
3) Bourgeois ideologues put forward the ‘theory’ of equality and equivalence of literature and politics, that is, “bourgeois” literature and “communistic” politics. The class-political meaning of this “theory” is in the aspiration of bourgeois ideologues to shut themselves off from revolution, to dig themselves into their literary positions, so that they can shoot from there at the fortress of the proletarian dictatorship. In the current situation, artistic literature remains one of the last arenas in which unremitting class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is taking place, for hegemony over intermediate elements.
4) The Soviet Union is a union of governments which bear the markings of a transition from capitalism to communism. Power, economics, the army, school–all of these are of a transitional nature, and all bear the stamp of the proletariat, which is leading contemporary society from capitalism to communism. From the moment of its appearance in the historical arena until now, the proletariat has created the great values of a new material and spiritual culture. The question of proletarian culture, the culture of the new class, the transitional culture, resting upon the inheritance of former ruling classes, is in principle and in practice decided for those who have answered the question about the movement of the proletariat forward into socialism and not backward into capitalism; it is decided, above all, for the working class. A negative attitude toward proletarian culture and proletarian literature is historically and in principle related to that liquidationist position, which was formed in Soviet society in 1922-25 under the name of “opposition” within the RKP, and which represents a reflection and an expression of pressure from the petty bourgeoisie, striving gradually to eliminate the dictatorship of the proletariat and to put the country onto the rails of “democracy.” From the point of view of liquidationism, all discussion about proletarian culture and literature must seem Utopian, because to liquidators the historical victory of the proletariat itself would seem Utopian. However, the unarguable fact of the very existence of proletarian culture and literature in contemporary society is one demonstration of the inevitability of that victory.
5) The most consistent opponents of proletarian culture and literature are Comrades Trotsky and Voronskii. In his book, Literature and Revolution, L. D. Trotsky writes, “It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois literature and culture with proletarian literature and culture. The latter will soon disappear, since the proletarian regime is temporary and transitional. The historical meaning and moral influence of the proletarian revolution lies in the fact that it lays the foundations of a classless culture, the first culture which will be truly human.” (L. D. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, p. 9).
Similarly, A. K. Voronskii writes, “Proletarian art does not and cannot exist in the transitional era of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The primary task of that era in the field of culture is the mastery of the proletariat, of the technology, the science, and the art of earlier centuries. Hence, what we have on the agenda is not the question of the creation of a proletarian art, but of a revolutionary transitional art, which, by means of the critical adoption of all previous acquisitions and attainments, will help the proletariat to maintain its victory over the bourgeoisie. The question is the adaptation of bourgeois culture and art in the interests of the proletariat, which naturally does not in any way exclude a search for new forms and styles, which correspond better to our era.” (Prozhektor, No. 22, 1924)
6) Trotsky denies the possibility of a class proletarian culture and art on the grounds that we are moving toward a classless society. But on that very basis Menshevism denies the necessity of a class dictatorship, of a class state, and so on. On that same basis, anarchism denies the necessity of parties and of a state. In truth, as is known, the position of both Menshevism and anarchism leads to the fact that, in the first case, under the flag of democracy, and in the second case, beneath the flag of unpacifiable radicalism, power is left in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks and the anarchists have no clear conception of that path which the proletariat must proceed to attain victory. For the Mensheviks, the strategy and tactics of proletarian struggle comes to the submission of the proletariat to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie; for the anarchists, it comes to feeble “left” phraseology, the result of which can only be the reinforcement of capitalist domination. The strategy and tactics of Trotskyism are a mixture of anarchistic “left” phraseology and Menshevik opportunism. The views of Trotsky and Voronskii cited above are “Trotskyism applied to questions of ideology and art.” Here the “left” phraseology about classless art is interwoven with, and serves to disguise, opportunistic limitation of the cultural tasks of the proletariat, “by means of the adaptation of bourgeois culture and art in the interests of the proletariat.” In the area of art, in the opinions of Trotsky and Voronskii, the proletariat does not contribute anything essentially new, in comparison to that which was contributed by the bourgeoisie.
7) Trotsky and Voronskii have no idea of “how” a common human socialist art should be created. Only one thing is clear to them; it will not be by the same path along which the proletariat is moving in the area of general politics and economics; it will not be through hegemony, through seizure of power by the proletariat in the area of art. Therefore, Trotsky declares that “the methods of Marxism are not the methods of art.” In other words, the laws of class warfare are inoperative in art. In the final analysis, Trotskyism in the area of art means the peaceful cooperation of classes; the role of hegemony here is entirely reserved for representatives of the old bourgeois culture. The entire task of progressive-minded representatives of the proletariat comes to the broadest possible dissemination of the elements of classic and contemporary bourgeois culture. There are no “independent” tasks for proletariat literature and culture, according to them. The whole question consists of the “assimilation of old attainments by the new class” (Trotsky). The future socialistic art, in the opinions of Trotsky-Voronskii, will grow out of the old classic and contemporary bourgeois culture without any intermediate steps.
8) What, concretely, does the task of proletarian literature mean during the period of transition between capitalism and socialism: It means that there is no literature linked with life, correctly reflecting that life. There is no literature “organically” linked with the hegemonic class and its revolution. There is no literature, which will actively “help” the proletariat lead, and move society forward to socialism. Then art stands outside of life and the class struggle, and the bourgeoisie can with full justification put forward the theory of the equivalence of art and politics, the theory of the independence of art from politics. On the other hand, if the proletariat-in-power does not create its own literature, its own films and theater, then the ideological influence on the non-proletarian segment of the population, above all on the “peasantry,” will indisputably be left in the hands of representatives of bourgeois culture and art. The peasantry can move, and move to socialism, it the proletariat exerts influence upon it “from all sides,” through the Soviets, the cooperatives, schools, electrification, the army, literature, films, the theater, and so on. In all these areas, the proletariat cannot limit itself to “the assimilation of old attainments by the new class.” It must speak the “new word”; it must be supported by new achievement, still unseen, which corresponds to the grandiosity of the new era, and the tasks which lie before it. Otherwise, ideologues who do not experience, who do not reflect the influence of the proletarian avant-garde, will influence the peasantry. And this means pushing the peasantry not forward to socialism, but backward to capitalism.
Without its own independent class culture, without its own literature, the proletariat cannot maintain its hegemony over the peasantry. The working class must carry the non-proletarian sectors with it, not only in the areas of politics and economics, but also in the area of culture. But this task will be solved if the same revolution is brought about in the cultural sphere as was brought about in the political and economic spheres.
9) Enunciating the principles of proletarian literature, enumerating the considerable successes achieved by the working class in this direction, it is still necessary to remember Vladimir Il’ich’s warning about the great danger of “conceitedness,” his instructions that “proletarian culture must become the natural continuation and development of those reserves of knowledge which humanity has developed under the yoke of capitalist and land-owner society.” Proletarian literature knows that it must take everything of value, all that is progressive from classical and contemporary bourgeois culture and art; but proletarian literature knows also that it must go far beyond the point at which the bourgeoisie stopped in that area, that is necessary not only to make use of the old culture, but, in Il’ich’s phrase, to “rework” it.
10) The main body of literature, according to the Trotsky-Voronskii opinion, still must consist of the so-called “fellow-travelers,” that is, the writers, who came from the intelligentsia, the lower middle classes, and the peasantry, and who ideologically have not yet taken the Communists’ side. “Fellow-travelers” do not constitute a uniform whole. Among them there are elements who honestly serve the revolution as far as possible. But the most common type of “fellow-traveler” is the writer who in literature distorts the Revolution, frequently slanders it, who is saturated with the spirit of nationalism, of great-powerism and mysticism. Since the predominant type of “fellow-traveler” has set the tone in artistic literature since the period of N. E. P., it is possible to state with complete certainty that “fellow-traveler” artistic literature is, at its base, literature which is oriented “against” the proletarian Revolution. A most decisive struggle must be waged against this anti-revolutionary element of “fellow-traveling.”
As for the real literary “fellow-travelers” of the Revolution, the all-round use of them on the literary front is necessary. But this can take place only if proletarian literature influences the best representatives of “fellow-traveling,” if these “fellow-travelers” group themselves around a proletarian nucleus in literature. Such a nucleus must be formed and is already being formed from the All-Union Association of Proletarian Writers.
The broadest field for the brotherly cooperation of proletarian literature and the revolution’s real literary fellow-travelers is, above all, among the peasantry. But this cooperation can take place and can become a significant factor in progress only if fellow-travelers can understand the basic meaning of the historical class struggle which is taking place in the whole world, if they can understand the role of the proletariat in the revolution and the necessity of proletarian leadership for the peasantry.
11) In a relatively short time, proletarian literature in the Soviet Union has become a significant social phenomenon. This literature was created from the merger of separate proletarian groups with the mass cultural movement of the proletariat, taking the form, first of all, of the worker-correspondent movement. It is becoming difficult to deny the existence of a proletarian literature any longer. Its opponents have had to abandon their original position of total denial and undertake a new tactic in the name of the same old goals of the struggle against proletarian literature. The main point of this new tactic is that proletarian literature, although, “recognized,” has to be regarded, however, only as a “wing” of “literature in general” (N. Osinskii), that is, of bourgeois literature. This is the usual method of opportunists in every country, who usually come out against the formation of an independent proletarian “party” in the beginning; but when this party has become reality, they “recognize” that fact, but advocate cooperation with the bourgeois parties, and pursue a policy of denying the political “independence” of the proletarian parties, the idea of hegemony, the idea of seizure of power by that party.
Exactly in this way, our opportunists begin with the denial of proletarian culture and literature, and when that becomes a reality, they try to make it the left wing of “literature in general.” This is a continuation of the very same liquidationist position in new circumstances and with new names. We have come into that stage of the cultural development of the proletariat, in which the act of “recognizing” “proletarian literature alone is no longer sufficient, when what is necessary is the recognition of the principle of the hegemony of that literature, the principle of stubborn and systematic struggle for victory by that literature, for the absorption of all types and varieties of bourgeois and petty bourgeois literature.”
12) The culture and literature of the bourgeoisie, not only of the Soviet Union, but of the whole world, is living through a tremendous crisis, a collapse, a decomposition. In this we have the best demonstration of the crisis, the disintegration, the historical doom of capitalism. Capitalism is hopelessly sick; the economic foundations of bourgeois culture are being shaken to the foundations.
Three years following the end of the armed civil war, in conditions of the greatest material deprivation, the proletarian literature of the Soviet Union came together in a single organized whole. The First All-Union Conference of Prolet-Writers united all the literary resources of the new class on one ideological foundation, around one powerful organization. This is an unheard of and unthought of phenomenon in bourgeois society, where the writers’ environment is one of the extreme expression of theory and practice of individualism. Proletarian literature of the Soviet Union stands under the banner of further growth. It is based on the mass movement of the proletariat and the most progressive elements of the peasantry, especially peasant youth. This significant success of proletarian literature has been possible only on the basis of the rapid political and economic growth of the working masses of the Soviet Union.
Proletarian literature of the Soviet Union has before it only one aim, to serve the goal of worldwide proletarian victory, to struggle mercilessly with all enemies of the proletarian revolution. Proletarian literature will defeat bourgeois literature, as the proletarian revolution will inevitably eliminate capitalism.
Source: William G. Rosenberg, ed., Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984), pp. 469-474.