Sheila Fitzpatrick. The Cultural Front. Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.*

Zenovia A. Sochor. Revolution and Culture. The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988.*

*Available at Powell's, a unionized bookstore.

Any American citizen visiting Soviet Russia for the first time in its last years was bound to make two observations: first, that life did not unfold in black-and-white like a Cold-War B-movie; second, that instead of living in terror Russians were, as a rule, an outspoken, rambunctious lot. (They still are.) Was Russia, even under Stalin, the Nightmare on Gorky Street it’s been made out to be? More to the point, were its genuine horrors the symmetrical opposite of the Capitalist Good Life?

Fitzpatrick is no Marxist; then again, neither was Marx. Her reading of the Russian Revolution is close to Marx’s own reading of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 in France: in every case a bourgeois capitalist leadership uses the working class to its own ends, while endeavoring “to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles.” Her most stimulating contribution is her underlying argument that Soviet-style Marxism, from its inception, was little more than another form of capitalism: the Vanguard Party would seize control of all sources of capital necessary to control the instruments of production in order to carry on production for the benefit of the proletariat, leaving intact the process of capitalization itself. The crimes perpetrated under the banner of Communism turn out to be the crimes of capitalists in the interest of the petty bourgeoisie: Thomas L. Friedman and Joe Stalin have more in common than a moustache.

From the outset the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (or rather, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as mediated and administered by the Party) ran into a major problem: the proletarians weren’t behaving like a proletariat that knew its place in the New! Improved! system of industrial capitalism based on technological innovation, concentrated, large scale industrial production, and collectivized agriculture. This is not to suggest the proletariat never knows its place in the abstract: those French workers admired by Marx were fully aware of the place they wished to occupy in a productive economy and the type of productive economy they wished to create; likewise, today the Bolivian working class seems mostly supportive of the type of economy they want for their future. Contrariwise, whatever the Bolsheviks wanted the workers to want for themselves (their “imputed class consciousness”), was nowhere to be found among Russian industrial workers: it was going to have to be created, willy-nilly. (Curiously, the largest group of all, the Russian peasantry with its strong traditions of communitarianism, didn’t count.) As a disappointed Lenin put it to the Eleventh Party Congress,

Very often when people say "workers" they think that means factory proletariat. But it doesn't mean that at all.... It's true in Marx's terms, but Marx was not writing about Russia... Often the people coming to the factory are not proletarians but all kinds of accidental elements.

To which another Party member responded: "Permit me to congratulate you on being the vanguard of a nonexistent class."

To paraphrase Brecht: The Party had no choice but to dissolve the People and to create a new one; and that’s where culture came in. As Fitzpatrick sees it, Russian cultural policy went through four major phases, coinciding with four social and political phases: the Civil War, from 1918 to 1920; the relative relaxation of the New Economic Plan, from 1922 to 1928; the first phase of mobilization, 1928 through 1932; and the Stalinist liquidation of the Revolution and its leaders with the Great Purges of 1937-38.

Nevertheless, and from the beginning, even before the revolution, certain Marxists felt that a genuine proletarian culture, if it were to emerge, must emerge from the proletariat, with a little help from their friends. From 1918 to 1920 a state-supported organization known as Proletkult attempted to help workers develop their own culture, until it was quashed by Lenin, who explained that “For a start, we should be satisfied with real bourgeois culture.” (To which Gandhi might have replied: “That would be a splendid idea!”)

Conversely, the language of formal theory, pre-digested to a pap, might often clothe the real choices of participants in a life-and-death struggle for dominance—to paraphrase Bourdieu. The period between 1922 and 1928 was dominated by struggles between proponents of the “hard” and “soft” lines in culture and education. The hard-liners are best exemplified and worst represented by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (or RAPP) and their musical counterpart, or RAPM, artists or wannabe-artists who felt they could "politicize the musical world by identifying ‘bourgeois' and 'proletarian' trends and groups in music and promoting 'class struggle' between the two.” Hardliners denounced the Government’s conciliating policies as

an antirevolutionary, opportunist conception of cultural revolution as a peaceful, classless raising of cultural standards—a conception that does not distinguish between bourgeois and proletarian elements of culture... and does not see the fierce struggle of the proletariat against the class antagonist in everyday life, the school, art, science and so on...

To which more conciliatory (or cautious) officials like Nikolai Bukharin answered:

Our society has two levels of conflict, internal and external. Externally it stands face to face with the bourgeois world, and there the class war becomes sharper... Inside the country our policy in general does not follow the line of fanning class war but, on the contrary, goes some way to dampen it.

Bukharin would later pay dearly for his attitude; but there were solid, practical reasons behind it: Technicians, intellectuals and professors, bourgeois specialists—spetsys, as they were dismissively called—were desperately needed to build the future cap... er, socialist utopia. Until the late ‘20s the official line was accommodation: university professors, artists, especially technical personnel, were allowed to continue in their jobs so long as they did not aggressively challenge the Party, somewhat like Marxist intellectuals in America today, with the notable exception that in Russia at least they were not, as yet, expendable. Fitzpatrick claims that even at the height of the Purges, cultural workers were relatively safe from reprisals because public opinion and the intelligentsia's esprit de corps acted as counterweights to Party policy.

The hard line reached its greatest resonance in the very late ‘twenties with the rise of Stalin, the first Five-Year-Plan and the first trials of bourgeois engineers, based on the logical argument that, since the technical personnel in the factories was a holdover from the bourgeoisie, they would spontaneously sabotage the Plan, which of course they inevitably did by the simple expedient of failing to reach the unreachable goals set by the Central Committee. From there on, the story might go, cultural and political repression went hand in hand.

Sheila Fitzpatrick thinks not. Neither the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938 nor the repression on cultural life that accompanied them were the work of one man alone; nor were they the work of hard-line proponents of class warfare: they were carried on with the assent and occasional participation of an emerging class, the vydvizhentsy, the "promoted ones," proletarians eager to ascend into the ranks of the bureaucracy: men with names like Khrushchev, Kosygin, Brezhnev. The type of art they and Stalin favored, the art favored by his followers, was not at all about class struggle or hard lines. By 1930, "when the party leadership for the first time formulated a distinct policy on questions of artistic style," classical bourgeois culture was, once again, seen as the only "real" culture, as Lenin had argued: classical in the sense that it retained the claim to inspire; bourgeois in that it did not aim to present or narrate conflicts. Fitzpatrick asks, rhetorically, what similarities and differences might be found between Stalin’s cultural revolution of the 1930s and China’s Cultural Revolution in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. Well, here’s an obvious difference: representations of class conflict are a staple of the Cultural Revolution in China; they’re almost non-existent in Stalin’s revolution. Even today in Russia, it’s unnerving to observe, say, a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, executed in such a lyrical, academic style that its political significance seems an afterthought. The purges, Gulag and the advent of Socialist Realism in art are closely connected with the emergence of a new Russian petty bourgeoisie: they mark, not the inevitable outcome of the Communist Experiment, but its closure. One scholar calls the Stalin Era the triumph of middle-class values.

Olga Yanovskaya. Stakhanovites in a Box at the Bolshoi Theater. Oil on canvas, 1937. Whereabouts unknown.

Fitzpatrick has a fine ear for the nuances of the Russian language, an ear that’s usually lacking among revisionist historians of the French Revolution. As Charles Tilly once explained, it would be foolish and self-defeating to approach any type of revolution without a thorough understanding of the epiphenomenal appearance of historical change: the choices available to historical participants do not come predigested in the language of formal theory, even and especially when the participants imagine that they do. The hard-liners and their petty-bourgeois Stalinist successors were limited (or limited themselves) through a choice of terminology that in turn narrowed and directed their choices. Tekhnika was such a determined and determining expression: as Uncle Joe explained in one of his most quoted apothegms, “In the reconstruction period, technology [tekhnika] decides everything.” The expression may have been retooled from Alexander Bogdanov, the founder and theoretician of Proletkult; however, in the mental hands of Stalin the concept of tekhnika was made to cover “technique” and “technology” at once. From the industrial point of view the implication was, that only the possession of technique could give one control over technology; and the central question remained, whether the right people and the right class would gain and retain control—In other terms, whether a certain class determined tekhnika/technology, or whether tekhnika/technique was a province of each creative individual. Bukharin took sides against Bogdanov, arguing that for Bogdanov

even technology consists not of things but of the knowledge of people of how to work with the aid of particular tools of labor, their psychological training, so to speak.

Later on, Stalin affirmed that it was the “cadres,” the technically knowledgeable classes, that “decide everything.” If, as Stalin and Bukharin believed, contra Bogdanov, people are "live machines" that simply process external stimuli without providing stimuli of their own, then the right kind of human machines (the "cadres") can direct the right kind of human machines ("proletariat") to produce the right kind of work from machines ("machine"). To imply that culture, too, is class-neutral, is to suggest that culture itself is not the product of men: technique and technology become interchangeable concepts.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, asking whether or not class relations originate in the instruments of cultural production rather than in relationships among producers is like trying to determine the gender of angels or the class-consciousness of tractors: it’s not what the tools are that counts (in some Heideggerian fashion), it’s what they do within a materialist philosophy of human essence as activity, as labor. In an implicit swipe at Fredric Jameson, Fitzpatrick briefly refers to Stalin’s pronouncement that language can be said to be neither of the structure nor of the superstructure:

Since Stalin borrowed his position from the traditional non-Marxist linguists, he could be seen as defending bourgeois professional values.

Which boils Jameson's argument down to the stunning affirmation that impenetrable academic jargon is not necessarily an indication of reactionary bourgeois tendencies—though it may be, of course. In Stalin’s Russia as in the US academies, it was precisely because culture could be imagined as an instrument of production and not a commodity that it could be seen as class-neutral. (And why, conversely, academic apologists of Capital will insist that cultural productions are a commodity after all, whenever they get cornered into admitting that the cultural productions they happen to endorse are rigidly structured according to class.)

Fitzpatrick has nothing but contempt for the cultural hardliners: they've got something in common with the kids from Occupy who confuse politics with self-promotion, or the Trotskyites from City College, in the 'thirties. However, while she finds little connection between the rantings of the cafeteria crowd and the actual policies implemented by Stalin, she fails to draw a clear distinction between the ranters' program and that of Proletkult: Proletkult, unlike any of the other trends in Russian revolutionary culture that it preceded, did not follow Schiller’s dictum that Art is the technology that produces a higher type of human being in the consumer of Art. After Proletkult there was no-one to argue that a proletarian culture might develop organically within the Soviet State, from within the proletariat. To be precise: in 1920, after Proletkult was absorbed into the State-run apparatus at Lenin's urging, the rhetoric of technique and technology was taken up by the Party hard-liners who increasingly dominated the Proletkult organization, and who increasingly denied that the consciousness of a social class could raise itself through culture, instead of culture being used as a mere tool to raise the conciousness of others:

The Bolshevik Party and the intelligentsia shared an idea of culture as something (like revolution) an enlightened minority brought to the masses in order to uplift them.

This idea was shared, also, by Trotsky, whom the hardliners at RAPP and the later Proletkult venerated, and who in turn inspired much of what passes for a progressive theory of Culture in America. When Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s point man on culture, told an international group of modernist writers that their task was to be “engineers of souls,” he wasn’t being cynical, as some have claimed: he was simply making an assumption that they all shared in one degree or another. The only alternative he or they might envisage was “formalism,” meaning cultural creations that had no social function whatsoever.

The paradigm of elevation, improvement or forward march of the proletariat through culture is one of the fundamental dynamics in Russia’s march toward the Great Purges, just as it was in Germany’s march towards the Holocaust; it’s the same paradigm invoked among those cultures that are openly capitalist, like ours. Eventually, in Russia as elsewhere, the hard line in culture lost out: RAPP was dissolved in 1932 and replaced with a politically neutral Union of Soviet Writers, in the same way that Nazi culture, which had favored certain forms of Expressionism, was soon under the guidance of bourgeois academics.

Concepts of culture, according to Fitzpatrick, were the medium through which the very real, occasionally deadly struggles among the various social classes of Socialist Russia were negotiated. Just as theorists and educated speakers failed to distinguish technique and technology, so, too, they distinguished between kul’tura and kul’turnost. Kul’tura was something one was assumed to naturally possess, or not: something akin to the bourgeois concepts of taste and class. Kul’turnost was something one acquired, and acquiring it was the duty, fate, and calling of the upward-mobile, just as yesterday it was the duty of the not-so-longer emerging class of NPR listeners and subscribers to the New York Times. The goals, in either case, turn out to be the same: buying healthier food and better theater tickets.

Stalin used Marxist language, but his real interest was in a process that is almost completely ignored in Marxist theory: social mobility,

meaning the opportunities opened up to workers and younger Party members by the Purges. Social mobility is not so much "ignored" in Marxist theory, it’s projected through wish-fulfillment categories like "imputed class consciousness." Even among Marxists, a class is not simply defined by what it does, but by what it wants. And the task of culture, in Russia as elsewhere in the Age of Faith, was to show a class what it is imputed to want. Perhaps the period 1890-2008 will some day be described in retrospect, not as the Age of Capital and anti-Capital, but as the Age of Faith in Social Mobility through Collective or Individual Will. The next half-century may well be known some day as the Age of Loss of Faith in Social Mobility and its Self-Appointed Instruments.

And the form that faith took in the visual arts was Socialist Realism – at least in Soviet Russia, though it has other name over here in America, such as middlebrow culture. Same difference. As Fitzpatrick points out, Socialist Realism isn't a style, it's a state of mind, a visualization of the Popular Front policy of cross-class harmony: Feelgood art, upward-mobile and unthreatening, devoted to “simplicity, realism, comprehensibility," in the words of Andrei Zhdanov. Zhdanovshchina, Zhdanovism, Zhdanovization: pressure to conform to certain norms in art and culture, which norms just happen to be the norms of middlebrow culture: nothing too sexual, nothing too obscure. Intelligentoedstvo: egghead-baiting. Interventions in private morals, something Fitzpatrick argues would have been unthinkable in the early days of the Russian Revolution.

That the Bolsheviks were capitalists, only capitalist claiming to run and control capital for the benefit of the proletariat, is something they themselves might have freely admitted. What escaped them, as it never escaped Marx, is that capital is a zombieghoul that takes over the minds of those who would control it. In Russia as in America, the real hegemony remains the hegemony of capital itself, and of capitalist thought.

Welcome to the Gulag. Have a nice day.

- Paul Werner

[2/27/2013; most recent revision 5/4/2013.]