Recently I have begun to post entries under the headline- “Songs To While Away The Class Struggle By” and "Films To While Away The Class Struggle By"-that will include progressive and labor-oriented songs and films that might be of general interest to the radical public. I have decided to do the same for some books that may perk that same interest under the title in this entry’s headline. Markin
Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky, 1924
Trotsky once wrote that of the three great tragedies in life- hunger, sex and death- revolutionary Marxism, which was the driving force behind his life and work, mainly concerned itself with the struggle against hunger. That observation contains an essential truth about the central thrust of the Marxist tradition. However, as Trotsky demonstrates here, Marxist methodology cannot and should not be reduced to an analysis of and prescription for that single struggle. Here Trotsky takes on an aspect of the struggle for mass cultural development.
In a healthy post-capitalist society mass cultural development would be greatly expanded and encouraged. If the task of socialism were merely to vastly expand economic equality, in a sense, it would be a relativity simple task for a healthy socialist society in concert with other like-minded societies to provide general economic equality with a little tweaking after vanquishing the capitalism mode of production. What Marxism aimed for, and Trotsky defends here, is a prospect that with the end of class society and with it an end to economic and social injustice the capacity of individual human beings to reach new heights of intellectual and creative development would flourish. That is the thought that underpins Trotsky’s work here as he analyzes various trends in Russian literature in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917. In short, Marxism is certainly not a method to be followed in order to write great literature but it does allow one to set that literature in its social context and interrelatedness.
You will find no Deconstructionist or other fashionable literary criticism here. Quite the contrary. Trotsky uses his finely tuned skill as a Marxist to great effect as he analyzes the various trends of literature as they were affected (or not affected) by the October Revolution and sniffs out what in false in some of the literary trends. Mainly, at the time of writing, the jury was still out about the prospects of many of these trends. He analyzes many of the trends that became important later in the century in world literature, like futurism and constructivism, and others- some of which have disappeared and some of which still survive.
The most important and lasting polemic which Trotsky raised here, however, was the fight against the proponents of ‘proletarian culture.’ The argument put forth by this trend maintained that since the Soviet Union was a workers' state those who wrote about working-class themes or were workers themselves should in the interest of cultural development be given special status and encouragement (read: a monopoly on the literary front). Trotsky makes short shrift of this argument by noting that, in theory at least as its turned out later, the proletarian state was only a transitional state and therefore no lasting ‘proletarian culture’ would have time to develop. Although history did not turn out to prove Trotsky correct the polemic is still relevant to any theory of mass cultural development.
One of the results of the publication of this book is that many intellectuals, particularly Western intellectuals, based some of their sympathy for Trotsky the man and fallen hero on his literary analysis and his ability to write. This was particularly true during the 1930’s here in America where those who were anti-Stalinist but were repelled by the vacuity of the Socialist Party were drawn to him. A few, like James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan trilogy), did this mostly honorably. Most, like Dwight MacDonald and Sidney Hooks, etc. did not and simply used that temporary sympathy as a way station on their way to anti-Communism. Such is the nature of the political struggle.
A note for the politically- inclined who read this book. Trotsky wrote this book in 1923-24 at the time of Lenin’s death and later while the struggle for succession by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev was in full swing. While Trotsky did not recognize it until later (nor did others, for that matter) this period represented the closing of the rising tide of the revolution. Hereafter, the people who ruled the Soviet Union, the purposes for which they ruled, and the manner in which they ruled changed dramatically. In short, Thermidor in the classical French revolutionary expression was victorious. Given his precarious political position why the hell was he writing a book on literary trends in post-revolutionary society at that time?