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Thursday, 17 August 2017 19:30

'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia

Published in Cultural Theory

 Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917.

Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city.  Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population.  A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs.  But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations.  At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.

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Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge.  They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order.  They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.  But how?  All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape.

In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates.  It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies.  By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.  At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. 

The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution.  The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class.  While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation.  The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves.  Another bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.

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First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says “Proletkult.”

Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came.  Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history.  Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution.

Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization.  Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workers’ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities.  They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres.  They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature.  Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory.  Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization.

Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult.  Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience.  They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects.  For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.

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Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.”

The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov.  He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work.  That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura).  As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils.  When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard.  This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. 

During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country.  Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed.  This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do.  Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. 

The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership.  Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory.  In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory.  In others, they learned to recite the Russian classics.  While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale.  Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. 

This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds.  The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view.  Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals.  He chose to focus on the very small part of the organization’s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed.

The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party.  The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority.  The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that.  Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction.  The government slashed the Proletkult’s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum.  Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful.

The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction.  It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation.  That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow.  The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles.  Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems.  Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s.  They used Lenin’s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines.

In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932.  In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat.  Instead it planned large cultural unions and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society.  The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape.

“Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization.  Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. 

Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.