Review of Trotsky’s “Literature and Revolution”

by Joe Auciello / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action

 

 

Leon Trotsky, "Literature and Revolution" (1923), ed. William Keach, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), paper, 300 pages, $16.

 

Leon Trotsky’s study of literary movements within the young Soviet Republic, and his argument for a partisan but broad-minded government policy towards those trends, is one of the essential works on the topic of Marxism and art. A previous American edition, published by the University of Michigan press, has

been out of print for some 30 years.

 

Haymarket Books has rendered a valuable service in not only reissuing "Literature and Revolution" but also by publishing it with an introductory essay, a 38-page glossary, and an index—all lacking in previous editions. Further, this edition includes 65 pages of poetry by the Russian writers that Trotsky analyzes and evaluates.

 

This volume reprints, with slight modification, the original 1925 (and sole) English translation by Rose Strunksy, a rendering that critic Irving Howe called

"somewhat erratic." The introduction, written by Brown University professor of English William Keach, places Trotsky’s work within its historical context and

highlights some of the book’s most significant themes.

 

Nonetheless, a word of caution is necessary at the outset. Despite all that the publishers have done to make this work accessible, "Literature and Revolution" is not on the order of a "Marxism and Literature for Dummies." Many readers would do well to begin with the collection of Trotsky’s work edited by Paul Siegel, "Art and Revolution: Writings on Literature, Politics,

and Culture" (Pathfinder Press). Helpful introductory books also include Terry Eagleton’s "Marxism and Literature" as well as Henri Arvon’s "Marxist

Esthetics."

 

"Literature and Revolution" poses some significant problems for the contemporary reader. The title suggests the book will explain Marxist theories of literature or expound a method of cultural criticism or perhaps offer close readings of selected literary texts.

 

While all of these elements can readily be found in Trotsky’s work, his book is not primarily a  popular exposition. Instead, he presents a historical analysis

of Russian literature from the perspective of the October (1917) Revolution and an overall analysis of then-current literary tendencies (Futurism, proletarian literature) as well as more specific criticism of prominent authors.

 

In the closing chapters Trotsky explains his perspective for the ruling Communist Party’s policy towards art, surveys the artistic landscape of Russia

in the early 1920s, and envisions the art of the future socialist society.

 

In other words, Trotsky does not expound principles of literary interpretation so much as he utilizes them.  When ideas operate at this level, a great deal of

knowledge is assumed. Those new to Marxism, or to this field of Marxism, will surely find it difficult to extrapolate the critical method Trotsky so skillfully

employs. An unfamiliar theory applied to unknown texts from a bygone era will more likely lead readers to incomprehension rather than enlightenment.

 

Yet, the effort to understand these ideas is an effort worth making. The editor, William Keach, rightfully points out that Trotsky’s work adds "to our ways of

thinking about the relationship between cultural and political change at any historical moment, including our own.”

 

Trotsky intended "Literature and Revolution" to be more topical than "timeless." It was his contribution to the literary and political debates that emerged in the early, creative years of the young Soviet Union.

 

Trotsky expected that history itself would give the final word to these arguments. He envisioned "twenty, thirty, or fifty years of proletarian world

revolution" that would ultimately result in the creation of socialism on every continent. Old arguments would be left aside as the new era would

naturally create a new art.

 

Of course, world history developed in an entirely different way. What, then, aside from historical interest, is the value of this book? The literary

schools it discusses have long since passed away, and the Soviet Union itself imploded in 1991. What topical significance, if any, can "Literature and Revolution" hold for the contemporary reader?

 

In the first instance, certain of Trotsky’s ideas seem alive and well today whether or not he is cited by name. In Venezuela, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, the populist government printed a million copies of Cervantes’ novel and distributed them for free. Doubtlessly, Trotsky, who argued on behalf of Alexander Pushkin, the Russian Cervantes, would have welcomed President Chavez’ initiative.

 

Trotsky criticized the Russian Futurists, who wanted "to break with the past" and "to liquidate tradition." To the contrary, Trotsky said, "The working class does not know the old literature, it still has to commune with it, it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him, and so overcome him."

 

Even after the working-class revolution, Trotsky said, "This class cannot begin the construction of a new culture without absorbing and assimilating the

elements of the old cultures." Clearly, the Venezuelan government is working to achieve those ends.  Many of Trotsky’s insights remain fresh despite the

passage of time. Recently, in The New York Times Book Review, Salman Rushdie published "The PEN and the Sword," a reminiscence of the 1986 PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) conference.

 

Rushdie recalled he had criticized American writers for their collective failure to confront "the task of taking on the subject of America’s immense power in

the world." This remark provoked an outraged response from Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, who said, “We don’t have tasks. ... We have inspirations.”

 

Rushdie offers no rebuttal to this notion, but Trotsky answered it decades ago: "The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft self-sufficient unto

itself, devitalizes and kills art." Trotsky also pointed out that literary inspiration originated neither in heaven or hell but on earth, within human beings who were subject to the social influences that enveloped them.

 

Perhaps Saul Bellow, a Trotskyist in his youth and a writer whose major characters are deeply immersed in social conflict, would have agreed with Trotsky’s observation that “art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian.”

 

More importantly, however, is the possibility of learning from "Literature and Revolution" to understand contemporary literature and art. What is most vital in Trotsky’s work is his use of the Marxist method, a way of thinking that enabled him to understand the culture of his day and that can be used to analyze current cultural practices and history. It is this use of analytical method that gives the book its present-day significance.

 

"The Marxian method," Trotsky explained, "affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most

progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road.…"

 

Trotsky evaluated the literary trends of his time by their relationship to the defining political event of the age: the socialist revolution of October 1917. He

examined the history of the different, and rival, schools of art by unearthing their social roots.  Although the political climate of today bears little comparison to that of the Soviet Union of the 1920s, Trotsky’s approach nevertheless contains some valuable lessons for readers and critics. The foremost point is that in America today, literary history cannot be explained solely by literature itself. The relatively newer and even dominant trends in fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir can only be understood by studying

their social and political roots.

 

This is the idea that underlies the entirety of "Literature and Revolution." "A work of art," Trotsky explains, "should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other

words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why."

 

These are not the ideas a student typically encounters in high school or even in the graduate seminar, and in this distinction lies the continued vitality of

Trotsky’s work. How is it possible to explain the evolution of recent American literature without an understanding of politics and social history?

 

Forty years ago the canon-defining "Norton Anthology of American Literature" contained little writing by women and African Americans, and nothing by Hispanics and American Indians. The literature of America was not only white and male; it was presented as a direct outgrowth of the literature of England. No others need apply.

 

Today, such an edition could not be published. No teacher would assign it, and no student would accept such a narrow perspective as informative, much less

definitive. This profound change in the literary landscape did not result from the discovery of treasure troves of previously unpublished literature (though research scholars, especially African Americans, have made important discoveries).

 

Instead, it is the political movement of the last several decades that changed the basis for literature today. The old tradition has been abandoned, and the

literary canon has been enlarged to include the voices previously excluded.

 

Multiculturalism is not only accepted as the new standard, in some states it is the law. The broader representation of a plurality of literary voices now

constitutes a student’s instruction in English from the first days of elementary school.

 

Cultural change of this magnitude requires, first, a mass civil rights movement, a women’s liberation movement, a struggle for gay and lesbian rights.  Antiwar activists who learned to "Question Authority" also raised questions in their classrooms as students and later as scholars and teachers. Taken together,

all the movements for peace and social change combined to mold an audience who would want to read this new literature and influenced the writers who created it (as well as the publishers who profited from printing it).

 

The dialectic of change in current literary history would not have surprised Trotsky, who long ago recognized that literary trends have a social basis

without which they could not exist: "If there were no changes in psychology produced by changes in the social environment, there would be no movement in art; people would continue from generation to generation to be content with the poetry of the Bible, or of the old Greeks."

 

At the same time, Trotsky was well aware that art, like every other intellectual endeavor, enjoyed at least a relative autonomy. Writers are influenced by

and react against each other, and often create new styles in the effort to express themselves and capture the reality of their times. Thus, the minimalist

fiction of the 1980s (Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, etc.) gives way to the maximalist fiction of the present (Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace, to cite

novelists of different generations).

 

While, in the first instance, it is right to examine the contemporary relevance of "Literature and Revolution," its importance as an historical document should not be ignored.

 

After decades of bureaucratic misrule in the postcapitalist societies of Russia and Eastern Europe, socialism, compromised as it is in the minds of millions, must and will once again emerge as an emancipatory idea for humanity. It is still necessary to distinguish a revolutionary, socialist policy in literature and art  (and not only in these fields!) from the totalitarian, Stalinist policy that

misappropriated socialism’s name.

 

"Literature and Revolution" joins Trotsky’s other works—"The New Course," "The Lessons of October," "The Stalin School of Falsification," and "The Revolution Betrayed"—that tell the truth about the past and so prepare the possibility for a better future. Trotsky’s writings on art constitute a part of his struggle against Stalinism and for socialism.

 

Trotsky’s guidelines for the new art of the Soviet Republic were broad and tolerant ("Art cannot live and cannot develop without a flexible atmosphere of

sympathy around it"). "Literature and Revolution" is permeated with that "flexible atmosphere of sympathy."  Trotsky does not intend at all for commissars of culture to dictate the content and style of literary work. Still, Trotsky did endorse Soviet censorship of reactionary and counterrevolutionary ideas in art. The editor of this new edition, William Keach, correctly points out that in periods of war and severe social crisis, all governments have limited the scope of freedom, and the Bolsheviks did the same in defense of the working class.

 

But this is only a general guideline. The Bolsheviks never intended for their policies to be copied thoughtlessly and mechanically by their international

cothinkers. Still less does it follow that every utterance in "Literature and Revolution" be taken as gospel.

 

From the vantage point of the present, from the vantage point, that is, of those who have the opportunity and responsibility to learn from the pioneering example of Bolshevism, Trotsky’s stance on literary freedom and restriction raises questions not so easily resolved.

 

It is true that Trotsky urged a cautious, judicious censorship, but nonetheless he did support the office of the censor. In the introduction to his book he says

that the Party favored "complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art," but only after a condition. Artists must first pass a test: "complete freedom" would be granted to artists only "after putting before them the categorical standard of being for or against the Revolution." Of course, with

this condition, complete freedom is not complete.

 

In the chapter, "Communist Policy Toward Art," Trotsky is more explicit and his tone is more pugnacious: "If the Revolution has the right to destroy bridges and

art monuments whenever necessary, it will stop still less from laying its hand on any tendency in art which ... threatens to disintegrate the revolutionary environment or to arouse the internal forces of the Revolution ... to a hostile opposition to one another. Our standard is, clearly, political, imperative and

intolerant."

 

In this argument from the general to the specific, Trotsky conjures up the image of a revolution at war with its avowed enemies. Yes, the Revolution had the

right, the obligation, to defend itself and interfere with its enemies’ plans to destroy it.  But, as Trotsky noted, "[t]he question is only at  what point

should interference begin...."

 

In hindsight, it is clear that by 1923 the greater danger to culture and art was the stifling hand of the bureaucracy, not the defeated counterrevolution and

its literary admirers. The answer to art that, for instance, waxed nostalgic for the good old days of village life under tsarist rule, if an answer was needed, was not socialist censorship but socialist criticism.

 

And if, as Trotsky said, art that looked to the past had no future ("non-revolutionary literature ... is dying, together with the classes which it served"),

then such art would find no popular response and would fade away not from censorship but from indifference.  In any event, the last thing needed was to cede more authority over art to the bureaucrat in Glavlit, the Soviet censorship board.

 

Further, Trotsky’s criteria for censorship was overly broad and therefore dangerous. Phrases like "disintegrate the revolutionary environment" and

"hostile opposition" can cover everything from armed rebellion to a sarcastic remark.

 

Some 15 years later, after the triumph of the totalitarian Stalinist bureaucracy and the debasement of all forms of art and culture in the Soviet Union, Trotsky wrote "Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art," in which he implicitly reconsidered his earlier statements on censorship.

 

While stating that "the revolutionary state has the right to defend itself against the counterattack of the bourgeoisie," the emphasis of his argument had

shifted. He now explicitly refers to these laws as "temporary measures." He goes on to say that a socialist government "is not afraid of art." On the

contrary, "to develop intellectual creation an anarchist regime of individual liberty should from the first be established. No authority, no dictation, not

the least trace of orders from above!

 

In his last testament on art, Trotsky lands squarely on the side of freedom of thought and expression. It is the exact opposite of the repressive policy of the

Soviet bureaucracy and its imitators in China and Eastern Europe from the end of the Second World War to the onset of glasnost, (excepting the brief period of the "thaw" in the Soviet Union that allowed the temporary publication in 1962 of Solzhenitsyn’s novella of the concentration camps, "One Day in the

Life of Ivan Denisovich").

 

Trotsky clearly argues that the stifling and silencing of creative artists that defined Soviet culture under Stalin is not at all a necessary inevitable outcome of proletarian revolution.

 

If Soviet art were encouraged to speak, what, according to Trotsky, should it say? It is useful to pose the question because every critic, explicitly or implicitly, promotes a literary method, style, or theme. Trotsky did anticipate "the forming of a new and great literature," but how did he, who so sharply

defined the characteristics of pre-revolutionary art, define the characteristics of a new revolutionary art? Trotsky’s answer is not specific and prescriptive but

more general and vague. In no sense is this a failure of perspective or vision. Precisely in that lack of clarity lies the freedom of the artist to create. In fact, Trotsky insists that the socialist government must not favor one literary tendency over another.  Trotsky notes, “Of course the new art cannot but place

the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions.”

 

Trotsky is far more articulate about what art should not be; he firmly opposes falsehood in all its forms, such as sentimentality, heroic posturing, or

prettifying an unpleasant reality. He states, "The art of the Revolution does not at all consist in not seeing the truth or in transforming the stern reality by an effort of the imagination..."

 

Further, he adds, "The poetry of the Revolution is not in the booming of machine guns, nor in the struggle behind barricades; it is not in the heroism of the fallen, nor in the triumph of the victorious.…"

 

If all of these scenarios seem like fit subjects for art, perhaps it is because under the Stalin regime and after, "not seeing the truth" and "transforming the

stern reality" became the first requirements for art.  Not surprisingly, in one of the few occasions where Trotsky describes what Soviet art should be, he

insists on literary qualities that are the opposite of Stalinism. In the chapter "Revolutionary and Socialist Art," as part of a discussion of Soviet theater,

Trotsky makes his most prescriptive comments. "[W]e need simply a Soviet comedy of manners, one of laughter and indignation.…"

 

This "new dramatic art" should say, "We are building a new life now, and yet how much piggishness, vulgarity and knavery of the old and of the new are about us; let us make a clean sweep of them.…"

 

This fresh, honest spirit Trotsky looked for was not confined to the stage. "The new art," he said, "will revive all the old forms. ... All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to re-feel its feelings."  Whether in response to Trotsky’s criticism or in obedience to their own literary conscience, many Soviet writers struck out on the path Trotsky had indicated for them. The results soon proved disastrous.

 

As the power of the bureaucracy grew and solidified, the creativity of the artist shriveled or went underground. Soviet writers became, in Max Eastman’s

memorable phrase, "writers in uniform." Those who could not enlist could not publish.

 

Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel "We" was not printed in the Soviet Union. Publication abroad led to persecution at home; "the critics have made me the devil of Soviet literature," Zamyatin said. "To spit on the devil is considered a good work, and everyone has spat as best he can."

 

Most of Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays were banned in his lifetime, and his masterpiece, the novel, "The Master and Margarita," was only printed a full 24 years after his death, and even then in a heavily censored edition. At the First Congress of the Union of Writers in 1934, Isaac Babel, the author of "Red Cavalry," spoke of cultivating a new literary genre—silence. A few years later, with the unwanted help of Stalin’s secret police, Babel "perfected" this grim genre.

 

Consider the case of Mikhail Zoshchenko, the author of numerous satirical short stories. The enterprising hero of one story, "Bees and People" sets off from his collective farm to gather bee hives from another area that enjoyed a surplus. The journey home, by train, takes several days. During a stop-over, the

stationmaster suggests the bees could be released for a few hours, in time for them to return to their hives before the train continues on its route.

 

Unaccountably, the stationmaster changes his mind, and, ignoring pleas to wait, decides the train should leave earlier.  So the train departs, empty hives and all. By evening, unable to find their hives, the bees angrily sting everyone in sight and chaos ensues. The stationmaster has no choice but to call ahead and have the train with the bee hives redirected back to the station.

 

By the conclusion, the theme of the story emerges when the stationmaster is told, “You can’t be so indifferent to things, whether they‘re big or little.  Bees can’t stand that. Bees sting people for that without giving it a second thought.”

 

“The stationmaster groaned even louder ... ‘Bees absolutely will not stand for being pushed around by indifferent bureaucrats. You probably treated them the

way you treat people—and you see what you get.’”  For stories like this one—tales of "laughter and indignation," in Trotsky’s words—Stalin’s henchman,

Zhdanov, maliciously condemned Zoshchenko as a "cheap philistine," and "a low slanderer having no  place in Soviet literature."

 

The effect was chilling and immediate. The Union of Soviet Writers promptly expelled Zoshchenko, who followed his conscience as best he could and simply ceased writing.

 

"Art must make its own way and by its own means," Trotsky insisted. "The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command."  Stalin

reversed this policy and thereby deliberately drained the breath out of Soviet cultural life.

 

In "The Revolution Betrayed," Trotsky accused the bureaucracy of devising "a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature." He scorned the Stalinist

notion of "socialist realism," in which "functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers,

glorify the ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’ leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness."

 

One virtue of "Literature and Revolution," one reason to welcome its return to print, is that it will help establish the truth about Bolshevism’s relation to art. It will show that the degradation of Soviet culture under Stalin was part of the degradation of Marxist theory and revolutionary policy in general.

 

Trotsky’s book will reveal that a better and freer course for art was not only possible but had already begun and would have developed further until it was

crushed by the narrow-minded bureaucracy.  Revolutionary art of the future will discover its link to and take inspiration from "Literature and Revolution."