The Arts, Revolution, and Leon Trotsky

Abbott Ikeler
2 min readMay 4, 2021

Part III

The Standards for Revolutionary or Proletarian Literature

What then are the characteristics of the second phase, of true revolutionary art, according to Trotsky? Like Marx, Trotsky first considers the material conditions, the rough physical circumstances and preoccupations in which revolutionary art is and will be generated. The climate is hard and uncompromising: “Life in Revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere, even in names. Hence the difficulty of an artistic approach.” (76) It is not a time to concentrate on formal subtlety or retreat to the primitivism of a “peasant-singing intelligentsia” — those fellow travelers whom Trotsky calls “the fools of the Revolution.” The reason is clear: “Peasant Russia, deprived of the leadership of the city, not only will never get to socialism, but will not be able to maintain itself for two months, and will become the manure and the peat of world imperialism.” (87) Nor should the revolution be celebrated as a spasm, a temporary though glorious uprising: true revolutionary poets must frame it for what it is — an historic watershed that prefigures a new age and a new culture.

Trotsky also takes strong exception to the notion that the phase of proletarian art can or should be permanent, partly because it’s a developmental stage that lasts only decades: “The twenty, thirty, or fifty years of proletarian world revolution will go down in history as the most difficult climb from one system to another, but in no case as an independent epoch of proletarian culture.” (158) More simply put, Trotsky defines it as “a brief transition from one socio-cultural system to another, from capitalism to socialism.” (162) Moreover, the proletariat has not yet acquired the knowledge to translate the new social conditions into art. We must remember, he says, that the working class “has been forced to take power before it has appropriated the fundamental elements of bourgeois culture…forced to overthrow bourgeois society by revolutionary violence for the very reason that society does not allow it to access culture.” (162) Even in the midst of revolution, Trotsky argues, creativity should be free from all but two constraints: the first is the demand to be realistic, which he defines as “a feeling for life as it is…and not a shrinking from it, an active interest in the concrete stability and mobility of life” (192); the second constraint is the necessity not to distract the public or undermine the process of change. Speaking from the point of view of the revolution itself, Trotsky makes his appeal to the would-be artist of the second phase:

“Whatever way you take hold of me, whatever tools and instruments created by the development of art you choose, I leave to you, to your temperament and to your genius. But you must understand me as I am, you must take me as I will become, and there must be no one else beside me.” (193)