The Arts, Revolution, and Leon Trotsky

Abbott Ikeler
3 min readJun 7, 2021

Part V | FINAL

The Final Phase of Art and Culture

Given the opposition of true Marxists to anything that smacks of socialism from above, it’s hardly surprising that Trotsky spends only a small fraction of Literature and Revolution, in fact just the last of the nine essays in the collection, envisioning the classless world of post-revolutionary literature. He’s no utopian, dreaming up a prefabricated model to impose on history: there are no examples of the future forms of poetry, no list of acceptable themes for socialist playwrights generations hence. What he does tell us is that the emerging new forms will reflect the closing of the gap between the intelligentsia and the working class: “The mannerisms that inevitably crop out in all small groups will fall away…and art will have a different aspect from what it has today.” (136–7) In that far-off ideal culture, freed from want and greed, children “will absorb the fundamental elements of science and art as they absorb albumen and air and the warmth of the sun.” Trotsky refuses to over-particularize, concentrating instead on the underlying spiritual shift that will generate new works of socialist art. It will be, he says, a society “in which the liberated egotism of man…will be directed wholly toward the understanding, the transformation, and the betterment of the universe — in such a society the dynamic development of culture will be incomparable with anything that went on in the past.” (157)

In the final chapter he outlines that spiritual difference — a difference in kind, not just in degree — between revolutionary and post-revolutionary literature:

“Revolutionary literature cannot but be imbued with a spirit of social hatred, which is a creative historic factor in an epoch of proletarian dictatorship. Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions that we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming — so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians — such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbor, sympathy, will be the mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry.” (188)

There will, of course, still be “the struggle for one’s opinion, for one’s project, for one’s taste,” but art will no longer “be merely ‘pretty’ without relation to anything else.” (189) The absence of class competition will allow the struggles of art and life in general to be “the property of all people,” which combined with the human personality’s “invaluable basic trait of continual discontent,” will enable individual artists to take literature and culture to ever-higher syntheses. “Art will not suffer the lack of any such explosions of collective, nervous energy, [or] of such collective psychic impulses that make for the creation of new artistic tendencies and for changes in style.” (189–90)

Trotsky, perhaps reading the anxious minds in the community of those who are committed both to socialism and to the arts, caps his study of the subject with a simple reassuring sentence: “In truth, we have no reason to fear that there will be a decline of individuality or an impoverishment of art in a socialist society.” (190)