The Arts, Revolution, and Leon Trotsky

Abbott Ikeler
4 min readApr 13, 2021

Part II

Pre-Revolutionary Examples Outside Russia

Given his concentration on Russia and near-historical literary phenomena like the symbolists, formalists, futurists and realists, it’s not surprising Trotsky overlooks celebrated nineteenth-century examples of pre-revolutionary literature. Among the partially enlightened bourgeois precursors he references, there’s no mention of Thomas Carlyle who in an 1829 essay declared that “cash payment has become the sole nexus of man to man,” nor of the iconic scene in Dickens’s Oliver Twist where the upstart workhouse boy asks for a second bowl of gruel, nor of John Ruskin reminding the British capitalists of his day that, contrary to their ruthless profit seeking, “there is no wealth but life.”

Still, Trotsky repeatedly declares his respect for the most humane and visionary elements of the literary past, telling us that we can derive from “Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Doestoevsky…a more complex idea of human personality…a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces,” since “it’s hardly reasonable to think we can simply begin [the construction of a new culture] at the point where the bourgeois intelligentsia left off on the eve of the catastrophe.” (184–5) Art, after all, “means prophecy,” and “works of art are the embodiments of presentiments” (100) — important, even revolutionary, storm warnings, if you like, albeit from our half-blind forerunners. I’m reminded of Tennyson admonishing smug Victorians that the poor are “like a lion behind a slowly dying fire,” or of Arnold who sees beyond the institutions of religion and greed, but not far enough to embrace the rise of socialism. He feels himself wandering in the 1850s “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

Pre-Revolutionary Literature Inside Russia

Trotsky devotes considerable space in the collected essays to an analysis of the occasional strengths and more frequent shortcomings of contemporary Russian poetry — most of which he labels either “pre-revolutionary” or the work of “fellow-travelers.” With the symbolists he has little patience: “The castrated state of non-October art…moved at the beginning of the century from materialism and ‘positivism’ and even to some extent from Marxism, through critical philosophy (Kantism), to mysticism.” (47) He’s careful to distinguish, however, between those poets that hang on uncomfortably to the left edge of the bourgeoisie and those that fawn: “The psychology of hanging on and being kept is not at all equivalent to that of submission, politeness or respectfulness. On the contrary it implies very severe scenes, outbursts, differences, threats of a full break — but only threats.” (53) Trotsky is more dismissive of the superficial rebellion of the aesthetes and decadents who imitate the posturing of Gautier and Oscar Wilde:

“The French Romanticists…always spoke scathingly of bourgeois morality and philistine life. More than that they wore long hair, flirted with a green complexion and for the ultimate shaming of the bourgeoisie, Theophile Gautier put on a sensational green vest. The [Russian] Futurist yellow blouse is undoubtedly a grandniece to this romantic vest… [yet] nothing cataclysmic followed such rebellious protests…and bourgeois public opinion safely adopted these gentlemen romantics and canonized them in their school textbooks.” (113)

As for the best of October’s fellow travelers, Trotsky begins by quoting Alexander Blok’s objection to Bolshevism: “The Bolsheviks do not hinder the writing of verses but they hinder you from feeling yourself a master.” (62) Trotsky immediately refutes Blok’s claim that poets need a sense of individual authority: “They tell us…the source of a writer’s creativeness is his unique soul and not his class…But the truth is that…individuality is a welding together of tribal, national, class, temporary, and institutional elements, and, in fact, it is in the uniqueness of this welding together…that individuality is expressed.” (63) In the same essay he clarifies the link between individuality and class with categories that echo Aristotle’s insistence, in the Greek tragedies of his day, on dramatizing only those particulars that can be related to universal human conditions: “…a class standard is so fruitful in all fields of ideology…especially in art, because [it] often expresses the deepest and most hidden social aspirations….it tests the particular by a common measure, because if one did not reduce the particular to the general, there would be no contacts among people, no thoughts, no poetry.” (64) As for Blok’s own poetry, Trotsky concedes the worth of his best known poem, “The Twelve,” a paean to a band of October revolutionaries: “Blok caught hold of the wheel of the Revolution as he lay perishing in the stupid cul-de-sac of pre-revolutionary life and art….’The Twelve,’ Blok’s most important work, is the only one that will live…” (106) Unfortunately, Blok’s stark picture of the lone “bourgeois with his collar up, /…stand[ing] speechless, like a question mark,” and the twelve Bolsheviks “marching onward into snow…To smoke the nobs out of their holes,” is spoiled, Trotsky reminds us, by a retreat to superstition and preciousness in the last lines of the poem: “Crowned with a crown of snowflake pearl/ In a wreath of white rose,/ Ahead of them Christ Jesus goes.” (253, 249, 255)

Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the best known futurist poet among the pre-revolutionaries, gets nearly as much attention from Trotsky, largely because of his plea for new forms, and his distaste for poets who, he says, “put on little figleaves of mysticism…who keep patching Pushkin’s faded tailcoat.” (262) But Trotsky sees Mayakovsky as not much better, stranded as he is between the old and the new, pleading for new forms and rhythms rather than providing them himself: “Each phrase, each expression, each image of Mayakovsky’s works tries to be the climax. That is why the whole piece has no climax….the fault of [his] poetry, even in its best examples, lies in this absence of a sense of measure; it has lost the measure of the salon, and it has not yet found the measure of the street.” (130)