The Arts, Revolution, and Leon Trotsky
As a teacher of literature and communication, as well as a small-time poet and short-story writer, I’ve long been concerned about the place of the arts in a socialist society. What latitude will universal socialism permit the individual imagination? What part will the arts and their long history play in education and culture after the revolution? Is there a legitimate function for so-called “creative writers,” whether novelists, playwrights or poets, in a collectivist future? The questions are especially pressing for those of us over 50, propagandized here in the West to believe that the didactic, heavily censored art of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China are the best you can expect from a socialist culture.
Leon Trotsky, who combined political, military and literary genius in one head, offers crucial answers to these questions. In the summers of 1922 and 1923 he drafted a set of nine essays, published the following year under the title Literature and Revolution, that addresses the issue with unflinching specificity. The entire work has recently been translated, edited and published in English, and it’s from this 2005 edition, edited by William Keach at Brown University, that I’ll be quoting today.
A Look at Trotsky’s Theoretical Framework
First off, he breaks down literature into three historical phases — pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary. Occasionally Trotsky refers to the second of these stages as the period of proletarian, transitional, or communist art, and the last phase as the epoch of classless or socialist art:
“Revolutionary art, which inevitably reflects all the contradictions of a revolutionary social system, should not be confused with socialist art for which no basis has yet been made. On the other hand, one must not forget that socialist art will grow out of the art of this transitional period.” (61)
It’s also important to understand the historical parameters within which these critical essays operate. Although there are scattered references to writers outside his time and his nation, Trotsky’s focus is largely limited to Russian writers of the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, writing immediately after the civil war and shortly before Stalin’s takeover, Trotsky treats only the earliest manifestations of revolutionary literature. He also foresees a generation or more before the dictatorship of the proletariat will relax into classlessness, and thus only outlines or recommends what the literature of that final phase might look like:
“If a line were extended from present art to the socialist art of the future, one would say that we have hardly now passed through the stage of even preparing for the preparation.” (32)