The Guardian 30 January, 2008
and the re-invention of culture
In a short story called Misery, written in 1886, Chekhov narrates half a winter day’s events in the life of a St Petersburg cabby, Iona Potapov, whose only son died three days ago. He does not quite know what caused the death, ‘from fever, must be’, and does not complain about the hospital where the young man languished for three days.
He accepts the bitter cold and snow, the rudeness and meanness of fares, the frightening traffic, the old age which will soon make him unfit, and the death which is not far off; all this is what the poor and the oppressed have endured for ages, and his lot will be no better than that of millions and millions like him.
But for the past few days the unbearably horrible tragedy has taken him to the breaking point, and he feels an overwhelming yearning for a long unhurried talk about his son, the illness, the hospital, the funeral, his daughter left in the village …. . But no one listens to him, the military gent, the young men about town, the janitor, the sleepy-eyed cabby in the coach-yard. So he goes to the stables, unable to sleep, and talks to his horse.
In a sense, culture is a matter of talk, of voices, of representation. Chekhov proposes to explore, in story after story about pre-revolutionary Russia, just how the conditions for the production of voicelessness for large masses of the people have been generated and regenerated. This is a special kind of silence, enforced by class rule.
A coachman is just there as a lowly servitor; he is not supposed to have either subjectivity or voice or any kind of biography outside his allotted role in the economy, as far as his masters and betters are concerned. But any one who has read the story will realise, in line with what the narrative voice points out, that Iona a has a definite language of his own, which links him with the vast masses of the labouring poor in Russia, and that he shares a life-world and a culture, both in his native village and in the lower depths of life in the city, with the majority of mankind.
Culture, then, is a commonality of voices and practices and meanings — with special genres like funeral processions and women’s wailings mentioned by Iona — which comes up every so often against the stony wall of repression. The silence of the lambs is a throttling of voices by class rule. One of the first things that revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice ensured in the Soviet Union was a free play of voices, an unleashing of freedom where silence was once enforced. This was a matter of representing those previously unrepresented, and in the process a radical re-definition of culture was taking shape.
Giving voice to the silenced
Lenin had worked out a program of sorts in the tricky area of representation in November, 1905, in Party Organisation and Party Literature. He is of course talking largely of utilitarian and interventionist discourses — pamphlets, journals, polemical writings, political economy, party publications and so on — but the position he adopts has implications for creative work as well.
In fact, the word "literature" was being used in communist circles of the day as a hold-all for all kinds of communications, especially writings, and given the urgency of revolutionary tasks on the ideological front, this conflation of kinds of writing was hardly noticed.
Lenin is at pains to emphasise that one of the principal tasks of the democratic revolution is to free literature from the "captivity of feudal censorship", so that "everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes". This freedom of speech for all writers must be complete, but Lenin was scathing at the same time about writings in the service of "bourgeois shopkeeping", careerism and bourgeois-anarchist individualism.
The Party will want to "cleanse itself of people advocating anti-Party views", and engage in polemics with enemies of progress, but will not try suppression or censorship. After 1917, the most urgent task on the revolutionary cultural front was precisely to ensure that this freedom of the people to speak up was extended to every sphere of life and every stratum of society. The fierce criticism of certain institutions and discourses was one aspect of this freedom. The new culture would give voice to those who had remained silenced in history.
The basic Marxist program of "ruthless criticism of all that exists" had so far been a minority agenda in class societies, confined to the radical fringe fighting large vested interests. But now, for the first time in history, the workers of a vast nation got a taste of cultural and discursive freedom and were in a position to carry out their own program in this sphere.
And, this program had of course a positive aspect, because your revolutionary culture cannot be all denial; you have to invent and fashion your own discourses and your own art. But this of course is easier said than done; you have to think in terms of a radical transformation of the means of production of culture.
One very strong strand in Marxist cultural thought, potent in some quarters even today, is obsessively concerned with the relations of production in the economy and assumes that a transformation in the mode of production leads inevitably to a transformation of culture.
You need "organic intellectuals" of the working class, as Gramsci put it, to work at this transformation. Freedom means in this context the freedom to work, to labour, to engage in praxis in particular spheres, all in the interest of representing the working class and its allies who have at last captured state power. Transforming the economy and the state apparatus was one part of the new set of tasks for this class; the other was opening up the minds of the people and transforming the ways of seeing and feeling. The agenda, in short, was the making of the new socialist woman and man.
Lofty vision of freedom
How this lofty vision of freedom worked out in practice is a fascinating study in cultural experiments. One must remember that Russia was in a kind of intellectual and artistic ferment throughout the nineteenth century, especially its second half. There was deep turmoil in that section of the middle class which chafed under the oppressive tsarist regime and felt that drastic action alone can lift Russia out of the morass of poverty, repression and backwardness.
The ideological orientation of this section, as Lenin wryly commented later, made them volatile in their political affiliations, but a genuinely felt anger and frustration had inclined them towards radical action in the pre-revolutionary years. Lenin’s own life illustrates this fully. Here was a young man training himself to be a full-fledged revolutionary, but his single-minded devotion to the cause was being constantly enriched by eager and voracious reading and selective acquaintance with the arts.
His love of Tolstoy and Turgenev was not mere relaxation; music, particularly Beethoven and Liszt, moved him profoundly. Reading, discussion, writing, experiments and innovations were the very stuff out of which the ideas and values of one section of the revolutionary vanguard emerged. In the exhilarating years of preparation for the revolution, there was hardly any separation of organisational and intellectual work.
You gather the workers together, form party cells, prepare pamphlets, discuss strategy and tactics, form action squads, put up the barricades and fight when necessary, but you are at the same time reading and thinking and writing and keeping in touch with the latest in literature and art. The vanguard was working out, under heavy and constant pressure, some kind of model for life in a socialist society.
If I am free, what do I do with my freedom? There are many answers to this complex question, and some were being rehearsed in the preparatory stages. The revolution would bring out into the public sphere many of the problems relating to this range of issues.
Bukharin’s prison novel, How It All Began, paints a graphic picture of the intellectual processes through which the middle class youth of the early twentieth century were going. The protagonist, Kolya Petrov, is in high school, slogging through the useful liberal training in Greek and Latin, reading Moliere and Goethe and Stendhal, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky and Andreyev, going to the picture galleries, listening to music, and talking, talking about the present and the future of Russia.
There is amused rejection of Christianity, even Tolstoy’s stripped down version, and indignant dismissal of liberals and "legal" Marxists, including the rather obscure Shulyatikov who achieved sorry fame with his Justification of Capitalism in Western European Philosophy. Then the two teenagers, Kolya and Tosya, come upon the secret journal, Iskra, "printed on such thin paper", and are riveted on a quote from Marx: " … the proletariat, which does not wish to allow itself to be treated as riffraff, needs courage, consciousness of its own worth, pride and independence, far more than it needs bread".
This is the notion of freedom which promised a common ground for the working class and the intellectuals and artists to meet on. Gorky’s Mother is the classic text illustrating this process of the proletariat finding its feet as a class-for-itself through informed revolutionary struggle and the declassing of the intellectuals through theoretical practice. When these two strands come together you find the arrival of the organic intellectual of the working class.
It is easy to see with hindsight that the heady sense of liberation after the revolution would have led to excesses by artists and intellectuals. Lenin was puzzled and pained by the new "proletarian" art which sought to produce such specimens as "Karl Marx Standing on Four Elephants".
Lenin was of the view that a genuine proletarian culture could not be produced as if in an incubator or hothouse. He maintained that proletarian culture could come into being only on the basis of universal literacy under Soviet power, when there would be millions and millions of educated people and the conditions for the production of a new kind of culture would be laid. This new culture will have deep links with the best flowers of bourgeois culture which would be the foundation of a new proletarian culture.
His advice to the workers, "Learn, acquaint yourselves with bourgeois culture", is imbued with a deep theoretical vision and not simply personal conservatism of taste. One can see that his views were formed under the influence of nineteenth century realism, as indeed were the views of Karl Marx himself. This deep link between Marxism and realism, mediated by the splendid visions of the Enlightenment, would be worked out in vigorous excursions by Georg Lukacs later on, leading to very interesting debates with Brecht and Benjamin.
It is obvious that many artists and intellectuals wanted hectic modernist experiments under the aegis of revolutionary rule and people like Gorky and Lunacharsky were wholly in favour of such avant-gardism, much to the puzzlement and despair of the political leadership. Gorky’s argument was perhaps a little paternalistic, but he was of the firm view that his own version of realist art was not the only option available to the new cultural workers. He and his kind were against any censorship and repression, perhaps recalling the harsh days of tzarist autocracy.
If one looks at the first couple of decades of Soviet cultural and intellectual work, one can see both the strength and the weakness of this position. You learn from the previous age, yes, and your work as an organic intellectual of the working class is incomplete unless the members of that class are there, so to speak. But just as the revolutionary party has to work as an avant-garde in the beginning, the revolutionary artistic community too has to be bold in their experiments and explore the available means of cultural production to find their proper idiom.
But the fervid experimental work of the beginning of the revolution, even if it lasted only a couple of decades, remains a model of socialist modernism. The theatre of Meyerhold and Stanislavski, the cinema of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Yutkevich, the poetry of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Pasternak, the novels of Bulgakov, Sholokov and Ehrenburg, the theories of Bakhtin, Propp and Shklovsky, the music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich — one can go on listing the many flowers which bloomed in a new ambience. This is the first obvious sign of the re-invention of culture. The second thing is probably not so evident, but more lasting.
This is the expansion of the base of culture, which has always been Lenin’s major concern. If one takes the customary notion of culture in Chekhov’s day, as indeed in our own day, one realises that the mandatory equation of "culture" with high culture, that is, poetry and fiction and painting and drama and music and the discursive apparatus proper to these is yet another device to ensure hegemony and perpetuate class rule.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Kalidasa and Dante and Shakespeare, or indeed with Darwin and Marx and Freud; these geniuses extended the possibilities of human endeavour and left behind them "monuments of unaging intellect" which constitute a legacy for all human beings. The second point about revolutionary culture is a radical understanding of the differential access to these common assets of humankind.
A class society will allocate the natural resources, land and water for instance, unequally among people, the lion’s share going to the few; the most telling inequity relates of course to human labour power itself, which is, in Marx’s sense, a special kind of natural resource. Similarly, the access to Pushkin and Tagore, to Cezanne and Picasso, to Shaw and Brecht, to Joyce and Sartre, to Beethoven and Amir Khan, to Bunuel and Ghatak and innumerable others, is controlled not only by the financial and technical resources needed for their production and distribution, but also, more importantly, by the possession of cultural and intellectual capital without which you cannot make sense of these texts. Lenin tried intervening in this area.
There has never been a state which made available to its citizens, first, universal literacy and cultural competence, and second, universal access to the classics. We mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rejoice in the models of human freedom it left behind.