It might seem strange that, in 1922 and 1923, when the Russian Revolution was still fighting for its life, Leon Trotsky, having refused to accept the office of vice-premier in the new government, devoted an entire book, Literature and Revolution, to artistic questions.
This is the period in which Lenin’s physical health entered into a rapid decline creating the political confusion in which Stalin successfully hijacked the leadership of the Bolshevik Party.
Trotsky was never particularly interested in sectarian intrigue, and underestimated the fact that it can occasionally have terrible historical consequences.
In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, when he had been in charge of the Red Army, he rightly regarded economic questions as the most important consideration.
Trotsky believed however that the struggle for power was also a struggle for the “soul” of the revolution, and that cultural questions were an important aspect of this spiritual labour.
In part it is because of the grave economic situation in the Soviet Union that Trotsky turned to aesthetic issues in Literature and Revolution.
He believed that even if Russian society achieved a state of economic stability, this would not prove that it was socialist. “Only the development of a new art would signify that the historic seed has not only grown into a plant, but has even flowered,” he argued.
To think about intellectual and artistic culture was, for Trotsky, to think about the human creativity that a socialist society might activate. To envision that sort of future was to expand people’s sense of their capacities in the present.
Literature and Revolution insists that, as the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci put it, “What ‘ought to be’ is concrete” - politics should be the art of the possible rather than of the probable. Trotsky says that because “culture feeds on the sap of economics” one can tell a lot about a society from its aesthetic developments.
“The development of art,” he declared, “is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.” In this sense, literary and cultural criticism can be a useful diagnostic instrument.
Literature and Revolution performs two important tasks. First, it offers a check-up on the health of the infant socialist society.
Trotsky examines the various artistic movements competing with one another for cultural dominance in the metropolitan cities and so takes the feverish temperature of the times.
The Russian Futurists, for instance, deliberately constituting themselves as an artistic vanguard, argued for a radical break with the past. “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy and the rest overboard the ship of modernity!” was one of their leading slogans.
Trotsky powerfully insisted that their attempt to upset the bourgeoisie only confirmed their inability to escape “the closed-in world of the intelligentsia”. According to him, the Communists revolutionised social content while the Futurists merely revolutionised artistic form.
“We Marxists live in tradition,” he contended, “and we have not stopped being revolutionists on account of it.” Thinking of previous revolutions, he added that, “from a world we rejected theoretically, and which we undermined practically, we entered into a world which was already familiar to us, as a tradition and a vision.”
Trotsky passionately believed in the importance of renovating this tradition and vision. It is because of this that Literature and Revolution performs the second of its central tasks - providing an inspirational prescription for the revolutionary society of the future.
Trotsky’s book is a utopian programme, one that outlines the role of art and literature in helping to create a world in which human beings reach their fullest capacities.
Reflecting on humanity’s historical destiny in the extraordinary conclusion, Trotsky writes that, ultimately, man “will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biological type, or, if you please, a superman”.
In Literature and Revolution Trotsky proves himself to be acutely sensitive to the social forces underlying the construction of art, and one of the finest poets of the Russian Revolution.
For the text of Literature and Revolution go to www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1924/lit_revo/