Mayakovsky and the avant garde
What was the truth about Soviet art? Rex Dunn looks at the real reasons behind its decay
Vladimir Mayakovsky: futurist and hugely talented poet
Just as we must expose ‘fake news’, so we must also combat ‘fake history’. Of course, in the year of the centenary of the October revolution we are getting distortions and lies aplenty. If we do not challenge this, then we shall edge even closer to Orwell’s dystopian nightmare of 1984, whereby the truth is constantly being rewritten.
Consider the fate of the Russian avant garde (1917-32). Two months into the revolution’s centenary year, we had Sophie Pinkham’s piece in the London Review of Books.1 Dealing with two recent biographies about the life and death of Vladimir Mayakovsky, what she writes is based either on misinformation or lies - not so much about Mayakovsky, but about the role of the Bolshevik regime and the relationship between Bolshevism and Stalinism. This was contradictory, to say the least. But if we take an abstract approach - which focuses solely on events within Russia - then it becomes possible to blame the Bolshevik regime for everything: it was repressive by nature; therefore Stalin’s terror state was the logical outcome. In other words, imperialism had no role to play in the degeneration of the revolution at all!2
I disagree with Pinkham’s argument for two reasons. Firstly, for her, the repression of artistic freedom in Russia begins right from the start of the revolution. Logically therefore, Stalin continued where Lenin left off. In other words, we are dealing with an entity without constitutive contradictions, which might affect its development towards its final end (socialism and communism), particularly if this is interrupted by external accidents (imperialist intervention, the failure of the German revolution).
Secondly Pinkham argues that
the Bolsheviks had little interest in either the avant garde or art free from state control ... [they] supported Proletcult, the workers’ organisation that promoted the transmission of revolutionary messages in realist form accessible to the proletariat.
This suggests that the Bolsheviks were disposed towards suppressing artistic freedom, because they favoured Proletcult and its utilitarian approach to art. She is wrong on both counts. The Bolsheviks looked forward to a future when improvements in the material conditions of Russian society would allow for all kinds of art to flourish (both experimental and utilitarian). But this could not be achieved overnight. Apropos Proletcult, they were forced to intervene against the latter’s utopian sectarianism, which was to have disastrous consequences, both for itself and for Soviet art as a whole.
Proletcult was a movement based on the idea that the revolution presented artists with a tabula rasa. Therefore a new proletarian art could be created from scratch. Hence the art of the past, especially bourgeois art, should be either shut away or destroyed.3 It was also divided between its intellectual wing - eg, the supporters of the futurist, pro-Proletcult movement, later known as Lef - and a worker-based Proletcult wing, which was a mass movement. Both exhibited a sectarian attitude, which soon led to a war between the two, as well as with other art groups. Supporters of Lef, which included Mayakovsky, espoused new forms for art, based on the new technologies of mass reproducibility: eg, the use of dadaesque photomontage images to illustrate books or posters.4 On the other hand, the worker-based wing of Proletcult emphasised the need to continue with conventional forms of realism.
A deeper analysis of the revolution reveals that the fate of the Russian avant garde was bound up with that of the revolution itself. Its aim was to replace capitalism with socialism. But this had to spread from Russia across the whole world. For, as Marx says, this is the only way that a communist society can be achieved, wherein “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by some blind power”, which at last establishes the material basis for “the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom”.5 But after such a revolution comes the inevitable counterrevolution, because the old ruling class is not going to give up without a fight.
The counterrevolution was initiated both from without and within. The first phase was triggered by an attempt to assassinate Lenin. Soon Russia was invaded on several fronts by all the major imperialist powers, whose sole aim was to smash the revolution at all costs. This centred around a classic Trojan horse strategy: ie, imperialism’s backing of the White armies inside Russia, whose barbarism cannot be overlooked. In this regard, the Red Army responded in kind. At the same time, proletarian democracy was replaced by an “iron dictatorship”: ie, the Bolshevik Party and its newly created Red Army. For Lenin and Trotsky, this was a necessary, albeit temporary, measure - a holding operation - in the expectation that the revolution would succeed in the west. In 1937-38 Victor Serge attacked Trotsky for his role in the suppression of Kronstadt in 1921 (although this came right in the middle of the latter’s campaign to defend his old Bolshevik comrades in the face of Stalin’s infamous show trials). A beleaguered Trotsky struck back, arguing that the Bolshevik government had the right to defend itself and impose iron discipline:
I do not know ... whether there were any innocent victims [at Kronstadt] ... especially as I have no data at hand. I am ready to admit that civil war is not a school of humanist behaviour. Idealists and pacifists always blamed the revolution for ‘excesses’. The crux of the matter is that the ‘excesses’ spring from the very nature of revolution, which is itself an ‘excess’ of history’.6
The counterrevolution from within centres around the victory of the Stalin faction over Trotsky’s Left Opposition: ie, during the period 1924-28. By 1921 the failure of the German revolution was clear. This was a serious setback for the twin pillars of Bolshevism: proletarian democracy and proletarian internationalism (which was the only way to ensure the goal of true democracy in Russia: the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or rule by the majority, the workers and peasants, as the direct producers of surplus value. Otherwise the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution would continue and capitalism would be restored in Russia. But, given its backwardness, this would necessarily have had to assume a fascist form, which would be infinitely worse. Arguably Stalin’s ‘terror state’ was just as bad (thus today Marx’s idea of a communist society is dismissed as utopian).
Stalin’s faction won the power because the international revolution was defeated. This meant that the scarcity of materials and skills would continue, which had to be overseen by an increasingly centralised bureaucracy, within both the party and the state. Top-down rule suited Stalin, for whom power was everything. But he needed to ‘legitimise’ his succession before the expectant masses. Hence he invented the cult of Lenin and himself. (If Lenin had known that his mummified body would be interred in a mausoleum, that his portrait would be seen everywhere, alongside that of Stalin’s, he would have been horrified!)
In this regard, there is a direct link between events in the political and the cultural sphere. Clearly Stalin favoured a utilitarian approach to art, at the expense of the experimental.
The regime continued with the ‘iron dictatorship’, albeit for its own ends, not proletarian internationalism. On the one hand, it resorted to a policy of ruthless autarky (socialism in one country), combined with the revival of great Russian chauvinism. On the other, this also required the attempt to achieve peaceful coexistence with the west. (But, as Trotsky later said, not only was this a betrayal of the revolution: it was also utopian. History would soon prove him right: ie, the final defeat of the German revolution in 1933, which ensured Hitler’s victory and ultimately the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941!)
Thus the counterrevolution from within was now complete. Of course, the Russian masses had to pay an unacceptable price: Millions were sacrificed for the sake of Stalin’s five-year plans, mostly arbitrarily. Hence the need for the GPU secret police, the gulag, the firing squad, the great purge of 1937-38, etc.
Growth and decay
Despite the vicissitudes of the civil war, the Russian avant garde actually flourished during this period, which is indeed remarkable. Moreover, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party welcomed this (albeit his own preference was for ‘tendency’ art, or art in the service of the revolution). At the same time, they insisted on the right of the party to keep control of artistic movements. This was important in the light of the furious debates that were raging at the time.
On one side, there were the ‘acmeists’, who wrote metaphysical poetry. They opposed the revolution, along with western influence; in particular the ideas of the enlightenment (such as rationalism and materialism, which led to the ‘virus’ of Marxism). On the other side, there was Proletcult. But it was deeply divided over the question of the freedom of artists to experiment with new forms, as against the utilitarian demand that artists restrict themselves to conventional forms - art had to make itself accessible to the masses.
Both the futurist pro-Proletcults and the larger worker-based Proletcult movements competed against each other for the state to prescribe their own brand of proletarian art as the official form in the Soviet Union. But the party refused. Now both wings demanded complete independence from party and state. Therefore, as early as 1920, the Bolshevik government was compelled to intervene - via the newly created Narkompros (Commissariat for Education, under the leadership of Lunacharsky) - because these sectarian struggles were jeopardising the interests of the revolution, which was engaged in a life-and-death struggle for its survival. Thus it was imperative to establish peace between the warring factions.
As Gérard Conio says in his afterword, ‘Towards a proletarian culture’ (sic), in The futurists, formalists: a Marxist critique, Lenin was opposed to the idea of Proletcult’s independence from the party in order to serve its own sectarian ends. He was sceptical of the futurist pro-Proletcult’s shared hatred of the past or their desire to wipe the slate clean; their nihilism in connection with everything and anything inherited from bourgeois culture; their determination to destroy their artistic and literary heritage and to clear the way for an entirely new era, the era of proletarian culture. He therefore drafted the following resolution for the October Proletcult congress, which he succeeded in persuading the latter to adopt:
1. No particular ideas but Marxism.
2. No interventions on the new proletarian culture, but the development of the best traditional models, of the outcome of existing culture from the standpoint of the Marxist world-vision and of the conditions of life and struggle of the proletariat during the phase of dictatorship.
3. No breaking of links with Narkompros.
On the other hand, “Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders (Trotsky, Bukharin, etc), while concerned to establish party control in every sphere, never dreamt of interfering with writers’ and artists’ freedom of creation and expression.”7
Given its propensity for a utilitarian art that the masses could understand, the Proletcult movement continued to grow. Lunacharsky’s old pre-revolutionary organisation, which advocated the gradual supersession of bourgeois culture by a proletarian one, was forced to give way to the rise of the ‘leftists’, who were even more sectarian, such as the ‘Rappists’ - the Russian Association Proletarian Writers (RAPP in Russian). The latter denied that anybody not of proletarian origin was entitled to write at all, and they conceived of literature as being by the proletariat or not at all. This, paradoxically, was to serve as the pretext for the dissolution of the organisation in 1932 and vesting control over culture and the literary affairs of the party. It was in the name of literature that Stalin, in founding the Writers’ Union, dealt literature its death blow.8
Little by little, RAPP managed to eliminate its rivals. Under the direction of its arch-bureaucrat, Leopold Averbakh, it instituted a veritable reign of terror in the world of letters. This reached a peak in 1930, at the Congress held in Kharkov, where its line triumphed utterly and succeeded in having all other tendencies condemned, especially those that aspired to harmonise their ‘modernist’ and formalist conception of art with revolutionary faith. Mayakovsky’s battles with these proletarian poets towards the end of his life are well-known - having spent himself struggling against them in vain, he went over to them shortly before his suicide.9 In other words, Mayakovsky was an early victim of the ‘crime’ of formalism.
The growing attacks against him coincide with the final defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1927-28, which was followed by his expulsion from the Soviet Union. Thus the problem of how to win the majority of the peasantry over to the side of the revolution - most of whom were poor and illiterate - was left in the hands of Stalin and his acolytes: eg, Andrei Zhdanov. Hence in 1934, in his capacity as Stalin’s number-one bureaucrat, Zhdanov enunciated the policy of socialist realism at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow. It was neither socialist nor realist!
Such a reactionary turn required the services of artists, as “engineers of human souls” in spheres of art and agitprop. But now their function was to disguise what was going on in the real world: that is, the failures and increasing barbarism of Soviet life, arising from the first five-year plan (1928-33): eg, slave labour in the factories and mines, the Gulag and, above all, the man-made famine which was responsible for the deaths of an estimated seven million peasants between 1932 and 1933. These were the bitter fruits of ‘socialism in one country’.
Thus the necessary material conditions for the revolution, upon which the future of art depended, were not established. The full flowering of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union was subsequently strangled: ie, the freedom to experiment, unconstrained by the need for art to play its part in making the ideas and policies of the revolution accessible to the masses. The point is that it was not strangled by Bolshevism, but by its antithesis: the Stalinist bureaucracy, the ‘grave-digger of the revolution’.
We owe it to today’s generation, who hopefully will create a better future for all, to tell the truth about what happened in Russia after the October revolution. Based on an in-depth approach to the period, which also takes the negative impact of the counterrevolution into account (both from without and within), it is imperialism itself which bears the greatest responsibility for the destruction of the Russian avant garde. After all, the former started the civil war, which Trotsky himself described as “disgusting barbarism”.
That, of course, is where everything began to fall apart. Add to this the Proletcult’s own Achilles heel - utopian sectarianism - which played into the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky later wrote, under the rule of Hitler or Stalin the fate of art was the same. Artists were now “reduced to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task was to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions”.10 In Russia, if they refused, they were given a one-way ticket to the Gulag or they were shot. The destruction of the Russian avant garde undoubtedly played a part in Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930.
1. ‘When were you thinking of shooting yourself?’ London Review of Books February 16 2017. Sophie Pinkham is an American writer who specialises in Russian and Ukrainian culture and politics.
2. We can see the same distortions - lies, in fact - vis-à-vis this relationship in the current exhibition at the Royal Academy: Revolution, Russian Art, 1917-1932.
3. Compare the rise of postmodernism a half century later, which claims to be a new epoch for art, as opposed to modernism, based on the new mass media. However, (i) it is a continuation of both Dada and conceptualism; (ii) it is indubitably market-driven.
4. Compare Kazimir Malevich and the suprematists. They also created new forms based on ‘abstract non-objectivity’.
5. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1966, p820.
6. I Deutscher The prophet outcast (part 3 of his Trotsky trilogy) London 2003, p354.
7. G Conio, ‘Afterword’ in C Pike (ed) The futurists, the formalists and the Marxist critique London 1979, pp243, 247-48, 248-49.
8. Ibid p243.
9. Ibid p253.
10. L Trotsky, ‘Manifesto towards a free revolutionary art’ in Leon Trotsky on literature and art New York 1970, p117.