MCG top-pageEnglish homepageE-mail


" Real Human Culture " and Proletarian Culture
-Criticism of Trotsky's essay on Culture

From 'The Study of Scientific Communism' (No.28, 1970)

Written by Hiroyoshi Hayashi
Transrated by Roy West

Trotsky's theory of culture assumes that a surplus is necessary for culture, and without this no class can create excellent culture.

"Literature of the feudal age, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat must not be set in a row. Such a classification of the history is fundamentally vicious cThose who have discuss seriously and for a long time proletarian culture and drawn a programme for proletarian culture have considered this problem formally through an analogy to bourgeois culture. That is, since the bourgeoisie gained the political power and created their culture, it is probable that the proletariat also will create proletarian culture after the capture of their political power. However, the bourgeoisie is rich as a class and therefore cultured. Bourgeois culture had already existed even before the bourgeoisie formally captured political powerc.In bourgeois society the proletariat has no property and are helpless, so is impossible to create their own culture. Only now with the capture of political power do they acknowledge that their own terrible cultural backwardness. To overcome this, we must eliminate the conditions which preserve the proletariat as a class."(Trotsky Revolution and Literature translated from Japanese)

According to Trotsky's argument, for a class culture to be formed, a surplus (wealth) and the passing of time is necessary, but the proletariat has neither. Therefore, proletarian culture cannot exist. Feudalistic culture and bourgeois culture are confronted with "human culture" (Ibid p.186), not proletarian culture.

"It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human." (Ibid p. 14)

Of course, it is needless to say that, "culture feeds on the sap of economics", and: "Art needs comfort, even abundance. Furnaces have to be hotter, wheels have to move faster, looms have to turn more quickly, schools have to work better." (Ibid pp.9-10) However, the conditions from which culture grows and develops can never be reduced to "material surplus". First of all, without a lively, growing progressive class, no excellent culture can be born. In every country, the bourgeoisie created their splendid culture during their period of growth, when they were progressive and struggling against feudal power. It was not because that they had a material surplus, but because the bourgeoisie were living and fighting for the progress of the human race.

When the bourgeoisie ceased to be a progressive class their culture also passed its peak. On this point, Trotsky's opinion that the culture of a class reaches its peak just before its ruin is incorrect. When the bourgeois class became reactionary, bourgeois culture, regardless of its delicacy, gracefulness and diversity, also became lifeless, its content lacking any soundness or truth. Instead, degeneration, decadence, a passion for the infinitesimal, and addiction to personal psychology became dominant. The wealth of the bourgeoisie may grow larger, but their culture has became increasingly poverty-stricken and vacant since their surplus is obtained through the exploitation of other people's labor.

The proletariat comes to the fore of history as a progressive class which opens the future of the human race when the bourgeoisie ceases to be the bearer of progress. Certainly they possess nothing but their own labor power. They are poor, kept busy with daily labour, have no surplus, and are alienated from culture in general. Undoubtedly "they have no property and are helpless". But is it possible to draw the conclusion that the proletariat and their class struggles cannot create their own class culture?

Before answering this question, let's examine how Trotsky considered proletarian culture.

According to Trotsky, proletarian culture doesn't even exist. At most, he understands proletarian culture to be that which is produced by the proletariat. He thinks that the proletariat can't create culture because of their poverty and ignorance.

For him, proletarian culture is not the expression of the proletariat's class existence, lives, struggles, class consciousness and mentality, but rather is something to be achieved in the future through proletarian power and can be absorbed under the category of "true human culture" which is the concern of man in general.

It is completely wrong to think that proletarian culture is something which can only be produced in the future directly through proletarian power. Proletarian culture was born with proletarian class struggle, and so it already has a history of more than one hundred years. Moreover, the tradition of democratic and socialistic culture of the working and exploited masses which proletarian culture directly inherits is as old as the history of the human race.

It was not until the Russian proletariat gained political power that Trotsky noticed their culture was so poor. He thought from this time the struggle had to be waged for the elevation of cultural standards, and that proletarian culture couldn't exist because if the cultural standards were elevated, this would mean the creation of, not proletarian, but a truly human culture. However, in saying this isn't Trotsky absolutizing the experience of the Russian Revolution?

Certainly the Russian revolution was not connected with the true cultural growth of the mass of proletariat and peasants. The overwhelming majority of the mass of peasants were illiterate and ill-educated, and the working masses were not awakened to a high consciousness of scientific socialism. Of course this was not the responsibility of individual leaders or the party, but rather was a situation determined by the material and historical conditions of the Russian Revolution. On this point, the proletarian revolution in the advanced nations will not resemble Russia's "proletarian" revolution since even before gaining political power, the working masses will develop a high proletarian, socialistic culture and make it their own. If this were not so, (that is, if the proletariat were just slaves and followers of the ruling bourgeois culture) the working class would never be able to liberate themselves .

On the one hand, Trotsky one dimensionally abstracts the Russian revolution as a proletarian revolution, while on the other hand recognizing the lack of culture of the Russian proletariat and peasantry. From this he drew the completely wrong conclusion that proletarian revolution doesn't require the growth of proletarian culture (because the exploited and oppressed, poor proletariat can't acquire or develop it), and that the proletariat can't create their own class culture even after gaining power because the period of proletarian dictatorship is transitional and therefore they would not have enough time.

Is it really true that over the course of more than a hundred years of class struggle the proletariat didn't create a proletarian, socialistic culture opposed to bourgeoisie? If this were the case, and the proletariat were uncultured and under the influence of the ruling bourgeois culture, how on earth will they be able to achieve their own class liberation. Isn't this a manifestation of Trotsky's bowing to spontaneity in the field of culture? Isn't it an expression of awe and subservience to the bourgeoisie to say that the proletariat cannot create its own class culture?

Trotsky is completely unable to understand that Marxism itself represents the best part of proletariat culture. He poses the question in terms of "whether Marxism is a product of proletarian culture?"

"Marx and Engels came out of ranks of the petty bourgeois democracy and, of course, were brought up on its culture and not on the culture of the proletariat. If there had been no working-class, with its strikes, struggles, sufferings and revolts, there would, of course, have been no scientific communism, because there would have been no historical necessity for it. But its theory was formed entirely on the basis of bourgeois culture both scientific and political , though it declared a fight to the finish upon that culture. Under the pressure of capitalistic contradictions, the universalizing thought of the bourgeois democracy, of its boldest, most honest, and most far-sighted representatives, rises to the heights of a marvelous renunciation, armed with all the critical weapons of bourgeois science. Such is the origin of Marxism." (Ibid pp. 195-6)

This is pure sophistry. In place of the question of whether Marxism is a principal and essential part of proletarian culture or not, Trotsky substitutes the question of the "origin" of Marxism. It is common knowledge that Marxism inherits the best of traditional bourgeois culture and was born out of a "marvelous renunciation". It is also well known that Marx and Engels came out of the ranks of the petty bourgeois democrats. But what is the "marvelous renunciation" of bourgeois culture if not the birth of proletarian culture? This is precisely the question. It is meaningless to take the one-sided view that Marxism is not culture, but a "means of political struggle". If this were so we would be perfectly justified to say that bourgeois culture is also a "means of political struggle".

Trotsky thinks that proletarian culture is the culture directly created by the workers. This is a superficial and mechanical understanding of the materialistic conception of history. Trotsky certainly did say that: "It is untrue that revolutionary art can be created only by workers. Just because the Revolution is a working-class revolution, it releases-to repeat what was said before-very little working-class energy for art." (Ibid p. 217) But he doesn't say this in order to assert that proletarian culture is the culture connected to the existence and struggles of the proletariat as a historical class rather than just the culture that is directly created by workers.

The reason Trotsky opposed the viewpoint of the Stalinists was not their narrow understanding of proletarian culture as being whatever the workers directly create, but rather because he thought that what is directly created by the proletariat does not merit the name culture, and thus proletarian culture in general is not possible. The Stalinists and Trotsky are in agreement in their understanding of proletarian culture. They both base themselves on the narrow schema that proletarian culture equals culture created by the proletariat. Whereas the Stalinists affirm this formula and thereby narrow down, and trivialize proletarian culture, Trotsky presumes this formula but then concludes that proletarian culture doesn't exist because the proletariat is "poor and helpless" and their culture is poor stuff . Trotsky's viewpoint resembles the bourgeoisie's standpoint of culture for culture's sake.

Of course, proletarian culture must be carried out by the proletariat, and is inseparably linked to the development of the class struggle of the proletariat. If a wide range of progressive workers increasingly participate positively in this enterprise, the content of proletariat culture will richly blossom. However, we don't intend to say that any culture directly created by workers is proletarian culture. We think that Marxism and Leninism is its important base. Nevertheless, hereafter proletarian culture will develop a lively content and bloom completely. Proletarian culture will inevitably be formed from within the conscious revolutionary struggles of a wide stratum of the working class opposed to capitalism, and its clear appearance will manifest itself powerfully in opposition to the increasingly decadent and vacuous bourgeois culture.

On this point we are truly optimistic, unlike Trotsky, and are free from pessimism regarding the revolutionary creative power of the working class. Of course, the development of a rich and creative proletarian culture requires that the progressive workers absorb the best of bourgeois culture and base themselves unconditionally on the doctrines of Marxism and Leninism.

In this regard, the impatient conceit of the Stalinists is harmful. They simplistically discuss "proletarian culture", which they consider to be their own particular culture, and evaluate it in a sectarian political fashion. Lenin emphasizes "The proletarian culture is not clutched out of thin air; it is not an invention of those who call themselves experts in proletarian culture. That is all nonsense . Proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist, landowner and bureaucratic society." (complete works of Lenin, vol 31). The true development of proletarian culture is not formed by only depending on one's own direct experiences, it is not something that can be wished for. This is a fact that the Stalinists ( and New-Left ) forget!

Furthermore, Trotsky is not an ally of "tendencious art". He writes:

"The quarrels about 'pure art' and about art with a tendency took place between the liberals and the 'populists'. They do not become us . Materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitariancIn our Russian social development tendentiousness was banner of the intelligentsia which sought contact with the people cThe intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the 'subtleties' of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed. On the other hand, 'pure' art was the banner of the rising bourgeoisie, which could not openly declare its bourgeois character, and which at the same time tried to keep the intelligentsia in its service. The Marxist point of view is far removed from these tendencies, which were historically necessary, but which have become historically passe. Keeping on the plane of scientific investigation, Marxism seeks with the same assurance the social roots of the 'pure' as well as of the tendentious art .(Ibid pp. 168-9).

Certainly, revolutionary Russian critics in the mid nineteenth century, such as Belinsky, thought that literary activities in a wide sense must serve social development, and were strongly opposed to the standpoint of "art for art sake". Chernyshevski stressed that only literature which indicates the path to change through the faithful reproduction of real life can be considered beautiful, and from this perspective he wrote the novel "What is to be done?". This novel had a profound influence on Lenin and his generation. Dobroliubov also considered "pure art " to be the sentimental amusement of young aristocrats and the bourgeois, and he thought that literature must have role of propaganda. Pisarev dreamed of the day when art itself would disappear. Of course the revolutionary democrat's defense of tendentious art were expressed in a one-sided and extreme fashion.

But from this, is it possible to declare that "tendentiousness" in literature is simply "a trend that has been overcome historically, and simply discarded like "pure art" as being historically limited? Proletariat art must be full of this class partisanship. Moreover, what is this partisanship if not "tendentiousness"?

Trotsky insists that "tendenciousness" must be sublated along with "pure art", that is, "art for art sake". But it is nonsense to say that socialism will sublate both the bourgeois and proletariat standpoints? But what he is saying is that a historical work of literature must be "pursued" according to its historical and objective background. The problem is that Trotsky says almost nothing about what literature should be. He only asks that art "see objectively" and have social meanings and effect. Trotsky has nothing in common with the truly revolutionary, Marxist standpoint that literary activity should consciously be united with the development of the class struggles of the proletariat. This is nothing but the bowing to spontaneity in the realm of cultural theory!

Of course, we don't assert that artistic form is not important. Indeed, art is art by virtue of having its own particular form, and because it is a unity of form and content. However, the revolutionary democrats were perfectly justified in struggling against the theory of art for art sake and formalism, and the revolutionary movement of the Russian proletariat was firmly based on this tradition. This is embodied in the character of Lenin.

The problem is not the sublation of "tendenciousness", or art for art's sake. Since the bourgeoisie is a declining class sinking deeper and deeper into decadence, they raise the empty banner of "art for art's sake". The proletariat is opposed to the bourgeoisie's "art for art's sake" and are completely justified in raising slogans that are full of proletarian partisanship (indeed tendencious art!)

Trotsky asserts that terms such as "proletarian culture" are dangerous, because they "erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day. It falsifies perspectives, it violates proportions, it distorts standards and it cultivates the arrogance of small circles which is most dangerous". (Ibid p. 205)

The criticism of Trotsky only correctly applies to the petty bourgeois bohemian literature of the radical intelligentsia at that time in Russia which was labeled "proletarian literature". But when Trotsky opposes "proletarian literature" in general he is wrong, and in the end he must inevitably fall into the bourgeois standpoint of human culture in general.

Trotsky's theory is confused. If the Russian proletariat were extremely backward and proletarian culture was even out of the question, how can he speak of human culture in general? What is bankrupt here once again is the romanticism of Trotsky. According to Lenin, first of all Russia "should be satisfied with a real bourgeois culture, and for a start, should be glad to dispense with the cruder types of pre-bourgeois culture, that is, bureaucratic culture or serf culture, etc (an insight into Stalinist culture?-Hayashi)"( complete works of Lenin, vol 33)and this opinion is consistent. Lenin sensed something predating "real bourgeois culture" in the "proletarian culture" being peddled at the time in Russia. For this reason he recommended not "proletarian culture", but "real bourgeois culture". Trotsky also detected a narrow dogmatism in the cries for "proletarian culture" (this subsequently became a peculiarity of Stalinist culture), but the conclusion he drew from this was to deny "proletarian culture" and to make a leap to the abstract "real human culture". In this manner, Trotsky's theory of culture approached the bourgeois theory of the development of culture in general.

Zip:179-0074, 1-11-12-409 Kasuga-chou Nerima-ku Tokyo Japan
tel/fax +81-3(6795)2822

E-mail to WPLL