The Arts, Revolution, and Leon Trotsky

Abbott Ikeler
4 min readMay 25, 2021



Getting to the Third Stage

How, in fact, does Trotsky propose to move past revolution-focused, transitional art to the new socialist culture of the final phase? For one, he argues that the Proletkult, the communist organization in the 1920s charged with raising the cultural level of the working class, has so far instead indulged in a wave of “reactionary populism.” It must rededicate itself to “learning from our bourgeois enemies,” and its efforts must “be measured not by the rapidity with which they create new literature, but by the extent to which they help elevate the literary level of the working class, beginning with its upper strata.” (169) Trotsky has no illusions about the artistry of an uneducated proletariat: “…weak and what is more illiterate poems do not make up proletarian poetry, because they do not make up poetry at all!” (167) Again he stresses that “The work of the proletarian poets lacks an organic quality, which is produced only by a profound interaction between art and the development of culture in general.” (166) He makes the point a third and last time with unambiguous force: “The letters of the workers, the local poets, the complainants, are carrying on a great cultural work, breaking up the ground and preparing it for sowing. But a cultural and artistic harvest of full value will be — happily! — socialist and not proletarian.” (167)

What the proletariat needs to make the transition, Trotsky tells us, is a deep knowledge of history and a mastery of language “as the fundamental instrument of culture” (125), that schooling and long perspective that alone can enable deep insight into the present: “To understand and perceive truly, not in a journalistic way, but to feel to the very bottom the section of time in which we live, one has to know the past of mankind, its life, its work, its struggles, its hopes, its defeats, and its achievements.” (174) Trotsky is also adamant that the Communist Party not practice doctrinaire or arbitrary indexing of the new art: “The Party has not, and cannot have, ready-made decisions on versification, on the evolution of the theater, on the renovation of the literary language, on architectural style, etc.” (121) His opposition to such censorship is clear:

“To reject art as a means of picturing and imaging knowledge because of one’s opposition to the contemplative and impressionistic bourgeois art of the last few decades is to strike from the hands of the class that is building a new society its most important weapon….If one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life, without seeing oneself in the “mirror” of literature?” (120)

There can be no blank-slate Jacobinism, Trotsky argues: the roots of literature and architecture must be understood as essential parts of the continuing historical dialectic that has brought us to where we are. He takes a well-known artifact as an example:

“[It’s true that] The architectural scheme of the Cologne Cathedral can be established by measuring the base and the height of its arches, by determining the three dimensions of its naves….But without knowing what a medieval city was like, what a guild was, or what the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Cologne Cathedral will never be understood.” (151)

To make the transition from capitalism to socialism, Trotsky insists the “new class [must] enter into possession of the past, assort it …and build on it further. If there were no such utilization…historical processes would have no progress at all.” (149)

In this vein, he offers several early examples of what has come to be called standard Marxist literary criticism: “…from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian…it educates the individual, the social group, the class, the nation…. Marxism…asks to which order of feelings does a given artistic work correspond? What place do they occupy in the historical development of a society and of a class? And, further, what literary heritage has entered into the elaboration of the new form?” (142–3)

At the same time he’s quick to disabuse us of capitalist distortions of Marxist criticism: “It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary that speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say we demand that poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital!” On the contrary, Trotsky argues, “No one is going to prescribe themes to a poet or intends to prescribe them. Please write about anything you can think of!” Articulating “the new spiritual point of view…is not a state order,” he concludes, “but a historic demand. Its strength lies in the objectivity of historic necessity. You cannot pass this by, nor escape its force.” (144–5)