Trotsky on revolutionary art

There is a dialectical tension in Trotsky's writings on art and revolution that ultimately are rooted in some of the most fundamental questions of our epoch. Rather than addressing peripheral matters of "style," they really are about the possibilities for cultural as well as material progress in the epoch of imperialism. Time after time, on email discussion lists and in print journals, I am confronted by a version of Marxism that holds out the somewhat ahistorical possibility that capitalism can continue to have the sort of progressive tendencies described so breathlessly in some passages of the Communist Manifesto.

Against this position, I find convincing evidence all around me that no such tendencies exist today. The evidence is not just contained in the deepening ecological crisis, but in the state of culture both high and low. Christopher Caudwell wrote "Studies in a Dying Culture" in the 1930s. If he had not been cut down in his prime by fascist bullets in Spain, we can be sure that he would have followed up with "Studies in a Dead Culture" in the 1940s or 50s.

In many ways, Trotsky approached the question of art and culture in a classic Marxist manner, which is to say that he viewed socialism as being linked to previous stages in civilization, especially the period of bourgeois hegemony. This view came to the fore during the NEP in his debate with the "prolekult" tendency, which called for a pure working-class art untainted by bourgeois culture. In keeping with the hard-headed realism of the NEP, Trotsky replied that "our epoch is not yet an epoch of new culture, but only the entrance to it. We must, first of all, take possess on, politically, of the most important elements of the old culture, to such an extent, at least, as to be able to pave the way for a new future." He calls for imparting "to the backward masses... the essential elements of the culture which already exists." "What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer."

Appreciation for bourgeois culture was not limited to its "civilizing" role in the infant Soviet republic. In 1905, Trotsky wrote a passionate appreciation of Tolstoy on the 80th birthday of the great novelist, whose world revolved around wealthy agrarian aristocrats and who rejected socialist modernity. It amounts to a defense of the right to create great art, regardless of the ideological content.

Trotsky's defense of high art appealed to intellectuals in the west, who were repelled by the excesses of socialist realism, Stalin's own version of "prolekult." While most of the artists in this milieu had opted for the avant-garde rather than the sort of formalism T.S. Eliot represented, there certainly was agreement between anti-Stalinist and many anti-Communists about the need to defend bourgeois culture against bureaucratic attacks. When Hitler or Stalin went on the attack against "decadent art," these intellectuals signed petitions and wrote letters of protest.

After Abstract Expressionism was co-opted by the American State Department, the lines of demarcation between Trotskyist-influenced artists and critics, and T.S. Eliot-influenced reactionaries began to blur. The Partisan Review, which had been a stronghold of Trotskyist politics and aesthetics, took up the cause of the New Critics and the reactionary agrarian poets of the American south, who had been influenced by Eliot.

Trotsky's thinking, as should be the case for all serious Marxists, was filled with contradictory impulses. This is because objective reality is complex and the human mind must be able to grapple with dynamic processes in bourgeois society whose ultimate direction can not be fully known in advance. In terms of culture and art, Trotsky was becoming deeply pessimistic in the late 1930s about the "civilizing" role of high art as fascism marched forward. In a manifesto "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art," addressed to a project begun by surrealist Andre Breton and muralist Diego Rivera, Trotsky worried over the total demise of civilization:

"We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced so seriously as today. The Vandals, with instruments which were barbarous, and so comparatively ineffective, blotted out the culture of antiquity in one corner of Europe. But today we see world civilization, united in its historic destiny, reeling under the blows of reactionary forces armed with the entire arsenal of modern technology. We are by no means thinking only of the world war that draws near. Even in times of 'peace' the position of art and science has become absolutely intolerable.

"In the contemporary world we must recognize the ever more widespread destruction of those conditions under which intellectual creation is possible. From this follows of necessity an increasingly manifest degradation not only of the work of art but also of the especially artistic 'personality.' The regime of Hitler, now that it has rid Germany of all those artists whose work expressed the slightest sympathy for liberty, however superficial, has reduced those who still consent to take up pen or brush to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task it is to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions."

Despite their stylistic differences, what united Ben Shahn and the Abstract Expressionists was a belief that their art and the war aims of US imperialism were both in defense of "civilization" against what Trotsky called the Vandals. The United Nations symbolized the hopes of the WWII generation. Not only would Hitlerite barbarism be staved off, agencies like UNESCO would help to create the infrastructure for new artistic initiatives.

Now that we are fifty years past the defeat of Hitler and on the eve of a new millenium, it is time for a detached and cool reassessment of the "civilizing" possibilities of US imperialism. This week the NY Times revealed that over 200,000 Mayan villagers in Guatemala were slaughtered during the 1980s with the assistance of the CIA. Guatemala has only 12 million souls. Imagine a bloodbath in the United States that would have left one out of sixty people dead. When Ward Churchill spoke at the Brecht Forum a few months ago, he said that from an Indian's standpoint, the present government of the United States appears as if the Nazis would had they been victors in WWII.

Isn't it about time that we began to view the capitalist system in the United States with the kind of fundamental hatred and determination to get rid of it that united artists and intellectuals of the 1930s against fascism?

Furthermore, it is in the arena of culture that this latest version of Vandalism seems most vulnerable. The illusions that the Abstract Expressionists had in the civilizing beneficence of American society seem quaint nowadays. The signs are all around us of a culture whose ruling class has lost all ability to either support or inspire high or popular art. Some examples drawn at random:

--The NY Times runs article after article about the crisis in classical music, while its FM station plays nothing but short dribs and drabs of the most banal war-horses, with ads for Volvos and vacations in the Bahamas taking up at least ten percent of every hour of air-time.

--The Whitney Museum's biennials of current art have become the laughing stock of the critical community and for good reasons. As clients of the ruling class who fund them, these artists lack inspiration and technique, thusly mirroring the barbarism of their benefactors. Their half-hearted attempts at radical criticism embody the postmodernist sensibility and naturally defy any attempt by ordinary people to identify with their messages buried in irony and kitsch.

--Hollywood is at the end of its tether. The golden age of cinema is finished, as the post-WWII generation has either died or retired. Films today are the product of the accountant's spreadsheet and are based entirely on demographics. Screenwriters are drawn from the world of television and demonstrate all of the vapidity of the medium.

The decline of culture is tied up with the decline of capitalist civilization. Attempts to reform art are doomed to futility, just as attempts to make the media more accountable are doomed. There are structural impediments that are insurmountable.

A radical critique of bourgeois society can not be limited to problems of unemployment and war, as serious as these matters are. The loss of beauty and spirituality (yes, I chose that word specifically) are also oppressive. If the ecological crisis can cause the disappearance of blue-fin tunas or the orangutan, two of the most sublime animals in the world, we must take up arms against that crisis. A world devoid of all species except homo sapiens, his household pets, crows, and rats hardly seems worth living in.

By the same token, the inability of this culture to foster the environment necessary for what Trotsky called the "artistic personality" condemns it. What Trotsky did not spell out is that the "artistic personality" includes each and every one of us. To enjoy art as well as to create it requires a total transformation of the way society is organized.