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Lenin's gOwn Wordsh(Part One: On Art and Culture)

3. Evaluation of Writers and the Role of the Intelligentsia

Politics and Art

gIn the field of proletarian art Gorky is an enormous asset in spite of his sympathies for Machism and otzovism. But a platform which sets up within the Party a separate group of otzovists and Machists and advances the development of alleged eproletarianf art as a special task of the group is a minus in the development of the Social-Democratic proletarian movement; because this platform wants to consolidate and utilize the very features in the activities of an outstanding authority which represent his weak side and are a negative quantity in the enormous service he renders the proletariat.h (gNotes of a Publicisth Collected Works vol.16, p. 207)

This was written in 1910 when Gorky was connected to the otzovists faction within the Bolsheviks. This group made use of Gorkyfs fame and talked about gproletarian art,h while advocating a new political program. This is one part of Leninfs polemic against them. The otzovists were a faction of petty-bourgeois revolutionaries that appeared within the ranks of the Bolsheviks during the reactionary period that followed the 1905 revolution. They supported the idealistic Machist philosophy popular at the time and called on the party to gcall backh the party members involved in legal parliamentary activity and to focus exclusively on illegal armed struggles.

Leninfs criticism was directed at two aspects of this group. One was their tendency to raise the issue of garth within the political program, and the second was their talk about gproletarianh art.

On the first point, Lenin said that he unconditionally recognized that the best art would be a ggreat benefith to the proletariat, but that this was separate from the political struggles of the proletariat, and that the ggreat serviceh of art takes a different form from political struggles. For the proletariat, a clear distinction had to be made between politics and art.

On the second point, Lenin said that otzovist gproletarian arth was in fact an expression of the Machism (i.e. idealism) that was opposed to Marxism. If this was indeed the case, he felt that the otzovists should frankly recognize this.

Criticism of Gorky

gIt is with deep chagrin that one reads this letter, impregnated through and through with stock philistine prejudices. The author of these lines has had many occasions, in meetings with Gorky in Capri, to warn and reproach him for his political mistakes. Gorky parried these reproaches with his inimitable charming smile and with the ingenuous remark: eI know I am a bad Marxist. And besides, we artists are all somewhat irresponsible.f It is not easy to argue against that.

There can be no doubt that Gorkyfs is an enormous artistic talent which has been, and will be, of great benefit to the world proletarian movement.

But why should Gorky meddle in politics?h (gLetters From Afar,h Collected Works vol. 23, pp. 333-4)

Why was Lenin so angry about, exactly? This was due to the fact that Gorky supported the bourgeois gdemocratic coalitionh government established after the fall of Tsarism, sending his ggreetings couched in enthusiastic terms,h and his fantasy that this government might bring about gpeace that will enable Russia to live in honour among the other nations of the earth.h According to Lenin, this was a completely ridiculous political mistake made by a ggreat artist.h

Lenin felt that the bourgeois government could not bring about gdemocratic peaceh because it was a government of the bourgeoisie and landowners which had a strong interest in maintaining its rights of territorial integrity and imperialist policies, and far from bringing about peace, would continue the imperialistic wars of plunder started by the tsarist government. Lenin points out that urging gthat government to conclude a democratic peace is like preaching virtue to brothel keepers. He felt that if Gorky was going to spread such stupid (and harmful) fantasies, it might be better if he would avoid politics altogether, and in this way he at least wouldnft compromise his reputation as a ggreat artist.h

Lenin straightforwardly, and without mincing his words, criticizes Gorky, and this in fact is the essence of Lenin. He expressed himself with a directness that was simple and frank. This is a great quality that constituted the power of Lenin. Without equivocation he says that Gorky was wrong politically, but at the same time, without any hesitation or fawning, he candidly points out that Gorky is a ggreat artist.h In this sense, Lenin is totally different from Stalin (and present-day Stalinists) who flatter gthe cultured classesh to win them over.

View of Tolstoy

gTolstoyfs criticism was not new. cFor Tolstoyfs criticism of contemporary institutions differs from the criticism of the institutions by representatives of the modern labour movement in the fact that Tolstoyfs point of view was that of the patriarchal, naive peasant, whose psychology Tolstoy introduced into his criticism and his doctrine. Tolstoyfs criticism is marked by such emotional power, such passion, convincingness, freshness, sincerity and fearlessness in striving to ego to the roots,f to find the real cause of the afflictions of the masses, just because this criticism really expresses a sharp change in the ideas of millions of peasants, who had only just emerged from feudalism into freedom, and saw that this freedom meant new horrors of ruin, death by starvation, a homeless life among the lower strata of the city population, and so on and so forth. Tolstoy mirrored their sentiments so faithfully that he imported their naivete into his own doctrine, their alienation from political life, their mysticism, their desire to keep aloof from the world, enon-resistance to evil,h their impotent imprecations against capitalism and the epower of money.f The protest of millions of peasants and their desperation -- these were combined in Tolstoyfs doctrine.h (gTolstoy and the Modern Labour Movementh Collected Works vol. 16, pp. 331-2)

Lenin drew a distinction between the ability of artists as artists, and the tendency of social thought that they express. For example, Dostoevski was ga genius but a reactionary.h As an artist, Lenin esteemed Tolstoy above all others, but he ridiculed his preaching on society and morals. Tolstoy was a genius on the one hand who depicted the life of Russia gand made first-class contributions to world literature,h but on the other hand he was a landlord who preached gone of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion.h (from gTolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolutionh). Therefore, even while Tolstoy negated land ownership in his own mind, he turned his back on the 1905 revolution against Tsarism and was unable to understand its true meaning.

While Lenin pointed out Tolstoyfs intellectual defects, he highly valued the fierce and decisive attacks in his art against Tsarism, the state, police, religion and the ruling class, his exposure of the hypocrisy, lies, plunder and despotism of the bureaucrats and rulers (see Resurrection for example), as well as his resistance against the unprecedented exploitation and poverty of capitalism in its period of primitive accumulation. Lenin called on this to be made use of and critically inherited for the sake of the emancipation movement of the working class.

It merits attention that Leninfs evaluation of Tolstoy clearly employed a Marxist method. That is, Tolstoyfs dogmatism was not seen as a merely an individual trait, and the contradictions and confusion of his doctrine was not simply a result of his own contradictions and confusion. Rather, this reflected the consciousness and psychology of various classes in Russia, particularly the peasantry, in the period following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, as well as during the revolutionary period from 1905 to 1917.

Lenin was most critical of Tolstoyfs utopian thought. Tolstoy was unable to understand the significance of capitalism for socialism and the emancipation of humanity. He completely failed to recognize the historical progressiveness of capitalism compared to the feudalistic serf society. For him, capitalism -- which at the time this was developing rapidly while dissolving the old relationships in Russia and upturning and ruining the masses -- was some sort of unfathomable gmonstrosityh or gevil.h He was thus unable to view the problem concretely and historically, relying instead on a moralistic geternalh principles.

Despite this defect, however, Tolstoyfs art raised gmany great problemsh in depicting the pre-revolutionary period in Russia and gbrilliantly illuminatingh the gepoch of preparation for revolution in one of the countries under the heel of the serf-owners.h (from gL.N. Tolstoyh)  This was the artistic genius of Tolstoy, its great power, and its value as art for all of humanity. Rather than simply discussing Tolstoyfs artistic power in terms of art, Lenin clearly indicated that his art wonderfully reflected the essential aspects of the age, depicting its manner of life, conditions, attitudes of the masses, and living emotions.

The Role of the Intelligentsia

 gAn alliance of the workers and the intelligentsia -- thatfs not bad. Tell the intelligentsia, let it come to us. According to you they truly serve the interests of justice? Whatfs the trouble? Let them come to us: we have undertaken the colossal job of putting the people on their feet, of telling the world the truth about life, we are showing the people the straight path to a proper life, the path away from slavery, poverty, degradationc

Do you think I quarrel with the idea that the intelligentsia is essential for us? But you see how hostile they are towards us, how ill the understand the needs of the moment? And they donft see that they are powerless without us, that they wonft reach the masses. Itfll be their fault if we break too many heads.h (Maxim Gorky, Lenin, p. 36)

Lenin did not forget the negativity, cool attitude, and aversion of the intelligentsia towards the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Despite this, however, he understood the necessity to involve them in the great task of building socialism in Russia. On the one hand, he said that if the intelligentsia truly want to gserve the interests of justiceh they should gcome to us,h but on the other hand he thought that at times it would be necessary to draw in the intelligentsia and gbourgeois specialistsh for the sake of economic construction, even at the cost of sacrifices, and that rather than gtreating them to a system of petty annoyancesh they should be given gthe best conditions of life possible.h 

Gorky explained to Leninfs attitude towards the intelligentsia in the following way: gAlthough in what he said and his attitude to the intelligentsia remained mistrustful and hostile, he in fact always correctly estimated the importance of intellectual energy in the revolutionary process, and he seemed to agree that, basically, revolution was the eruption of that energy, which could not find, in the outmoded conditions, the opportunity for proper developmenth (Ibid. pp. 36-7).

According to Gorky, Leninfs appeal to the intelligentsia to cooperate in construction of the new society was not well received, and many gpreferred hole and corner sabotage and treasonh (Ibid. p. 38) In any age, the intelligentsia enjoy preferential rights under the old society, and thus tend to be more or less reactionary and egoistic.

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