Trotsky – the Revolution Betrayed Chapter 7 – Family, Youth and Culture – Part 3 – Nationality and Culture

This section concludes Chapter 7 of Trotsky’s most systematic work on the nature of the USSR under Stalinism.

It comes after the extensive discussion of a detailed treatment of the impact of the degeneration of the state that was created in October 1917 by the workers revolution, in alliance with the peasantry, on questions involving women’s oppression.

Then it dealt with the stifling effect of the degeneration on Soviet youth.

In this section Trotsky deals with the impact of the same degeneration on the many nations and nationalities that made up the population of the USSR.

For of course, the USSR was a very multi-national and multi-ethnic state. It was the successor of Tsarism, which as many had noted, had the character of a ‘prison house of peoples’’.

The smaller peoples of the Tsarist Empire were both suppressed, and prevented from undergoing political and economic development, by the Tsarist regime.

Until the mid-19th Century, Tsarist Russia had been the potent enemy of all revolutionary and democratic development in all Europe also. It was a kind of absolutist, feudal superpower.

It is arguable as to whether it was actually feudal or not – some point to Marx’s concept of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ as relevant to pre-revolutionary Russia.

Though that is doubtful, as this concept seems to be based on major irrigation works.

Just after mid-century it was weakened. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 signalled the beginning of the death agony of Tsarism.

Russian rural life was often dominated by the medieval commune, or Mir, where the peasants owned and worked their own land in common and had a real element of collective control.

Marx seriously considered the idea that this incipient democracy could play an important role in leading Russia to some sort of socialism without the kind of capitalist development which happened in Europe.

However, this speculation was falsified by subsequent events.

Over time the growth of capitalism in Europe led the Tsarist regime to bureaucratically graft modern capitalist industry onto its own economy, to try to ensure its own survival. Though, that set off social and economic forces that it could not control.

Centrally the working class its economic activities necessarily created in the Russian cities like Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod particularly, as well as some others,

Such as the growth of heavy industry centred on coal in Eastern Ukraine – now the Donbass – the growth of the oil industry in Azerbaijan, etc.

The working class in the Tsarist empire was not simply Russian, but multi-national therefore, and the Bolshevik leadership had representatives from several nationalities in its leadership.

As well as Russians, you had Jews, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, and many others.

The nations of Central Asia, many of which were just emerging as the Tsarist Empire went into crisis.

The umbrella term ‘Turkestan’ was originally used to describe them. In fact, there were many nationalities that made them up, which in time under Soviet rule resulted in a multiplicity of Central Asian republics.

Trotsky’s account of the Stalinist treatment of the issue of nationalities in the USSR is scathing, but he does not equate that with the Tsarist regime.

Far from it, despite the Tsarist regime, he recognised that despite the bureaucratic degeneration, much of the progressive impetus imparted still continued:

“It is true that in the sphere of national policy, as in the sphere of economy, the Soviet bureaucracy still continues to carry out a certain part of the progressive work, although with immoderate overhead expenses. This is especially true of the backward nationalities of the Union, which must of necessity pass through a more or less prolonged period of borrowing, imitation and assimilation of what exists. The bureaucracy is laying down a bridge for them to the elementary benefits of bourgeois, and in part even pre-bourgeois, culture. In relation to many spheres and peoples, the Soviet power is to a considerable extent carrying out the historic work fulfilled by Peter I and his colleagues in relation to the old Muscovy, only on a larger scale and at a swifter tempo.

“In the schools of the Union, lessons are taught at present in no less than eighty languages. For a majority of them, it was necessary to compose new alphabets, or to replace the extremely aristocratic Asiatic alphabets with the more democratic Latin. Newspapers are published in the same number of languages – papers which for the first time acquaint the peasants and nomad shepherds with the elementary ideas of human culture. Within the far-flung boundaries of the tzar’s empire, a native industry is arising. The old semi-clan culture is being destroyed by the tractor. Together with literacy, scientific agriculture and medicine are coming into existence. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of this work of raising up new human strata. Marx was right when he said that revolution is the locomotive of history.”

However, he pointed out, and this is the main theme of this section, that there was nothing specifically ‘socialist’ about this. This was merely the assimilation of elements of bourgeois culture by previously deeply oppressed and suppressed populations.

He gives the example of the assimilation of basic rules of hygiene, or things like iron bedsteads, or knitted underwear.

He notes the proclivity of the population of the USSR, including Russia, to imitate the West. This concept, that the West was superior and to be imitated, plagued the USSR (for all its advances) up to the collapse of 1991.

Such advances, as he notes had nothing particularly socialist about them, they merely involved assimilating bourgeois progress and luxuries that had previously been denied.

However, Trotsky is clear on the role that the progressive contents of the revolution, and economic planning, played in this assimilation:

“To say that the Soviet Union is now performing that cultural work which the advanced countries long ago performed on the basis of capitalism, would be, however, only half the truth. The new social forms are by no means irrelevant. They not only give to a backward country the possibility of gaining the level of the most advanced, but they permit it to achieve this task in a much shorter space of time than was needed formerly in the West. The explanation of this acceleration of tempo is simple. The bourgeois pioneers had to invent their technique and learn to apply it in the spheres both of economy and culture. The Soviet Union takes it ready made in its latest forms and, thanks to the socialized means of production, applies the borrowings not partially and by degrees but at once and on a gigantic scale.”

And he goes on:

“If the October revolution had given nothing but this accelerated forward movement, it would be historically justified, for the declining bourgeois regime has proved incapable during the last quarter century of seriously moving forward any one of the backward countries in any part of the earth. However, the Russian proletariat achieved the revolution in the name of much more far-reaching tasks. No matter how suppressed it is politically at present, in its better parts it has not renounced the communist programme nor the mighty hope bound up with it”

The bureaucracy attempted to exploit that sentiment, and at the same time deflect it, by claiming that every conquest of bourgeois culture, as referred to above, represented something ‘socialist’.

These conquests encourage creative thought and individuality, which were themselves to a degree conquests of the rise of bourgeois culture. But the bureaucracy fears such things: it encourages petit bourgeois economic aspiration, but …

“The contradictions in the sphere of Soviet culture only reflect and refract the economic and social contradictions which grew out of this leap. The awakening of personality under these circumstances necessarily assumes a more or less petty bourgeois character, not only in economics, but also in family life and lyric poetry. The bureaucracy itself has become the carrier of the most extreme, and sometimes unbridled, bourgeois individualism. Permitting and encouraging the development of economic individualism (piecework, private land allotments, premiums, decorations), it at the same time ruthlessly suppresses the progressive side of individualism in the realm of spiritual culture (critical views, the development of one’s own opinion, the cultivation of personal dignity).”

And the implications of this for the formerly oppressed nations and nationalities under Tsarism are also clear:

“The more considerable the level of development of a given national group, or the higher the sphere of its cultural creation, or, again, the more closely it grapples with the problems of society and personality, the more heavy and intolerable becomes the pressure of the bureaucracy…..

…The Ukrainian, White Russian, Georgian, or Turk newspapers and books are only translations of the bureaucratic imperative into the language of the corresponding nationality. Under the name of models of popular creativeness, the Moscow press daily publishes in Russian translation odes by the prize poets of the different nationalities in honour of the leaders, miserable verses in reality which differ only in the degree of their servility and want of talent.”

And this applies to the Russians of course.

“It is a question, therefore, not of the oppression of one nationality over another in the proper sense of the word, but of oppression by the centralized police apparatus over the cultural development of all the nations, starting with the Great Russian.”

Trotsky is very cautious in attacking the regime as simply Russifying, noting the large number of non-Russians that made up even Stalin’s regime. Yet he could not ignore some of the material implications of the way things were developing:

“We cannot, however, ignore the fact that 90 per cent of the publications of the Soviet Union are printed in the Russian language. If this percentage is, to be sure, in flagrant contradiction with the relative number of the Great Russian population, still it perhaps the better corresponds to the general influence of Russian culture, both in its independent weight and its role as mediator between the backward peoples of the country and the West.”

He does conclude however:

“But with all that, does not the excessively high percentage of Great Russians in the publishing houses (and not only there, of course) mean an actual autocratic privilege of the Great Russians at the expense of the other nationalities of the Union? It is quite possible. To this vastly important question it is impossible to answer as categorically as one would wish, for in life it is decided not so much by collaboration, rivalry and mutual fertilizations of culture, as by the ultimate arbitrament of the bureaucracy. And since the Kremlin is the residence of the authorities, and the outlying territories are compelled to keep step with the centre, bureaucratism inevitably takes the colour of an autocratic Russification, leaving to the other nationalities the sole indubitable cultural right of celebrating the arbiter in their own language.”

So however cautiously, he does point to the tendency of the Stalinist regime to act as an agency of privileging the dominant nationality over the smaller nationalities of the Union, despite the efforts of the early Soviet government under the Bolsheviks to create an equitable, multinational union.

This of course is one of the key issues that undermined the USSR.

The polemical section on ‘proletarian culture’ is of considerable interest. Lenin and Trotsky rejected this concept.

The Marxist understanding is that the proletariat is an oppressed and exploited class, whose historical mission is to create a classless society (communism, via socialism).

The concept that ‘proletarian culture’ had some inherently progressive content was at odds with the mission of the proletariat to abolish all classes, including itself, progressively dissolving into a classless society.

The new classless society of the future would develop a higher culture free from oppression and the elements of barbarism that permeates all classes in a class society.

The concept that the workers state should dictate trends in art, which were ‘proletarian’ and which not, was rejected by the Bolsheviks:

“Although he had rather “conservative” personal tastes in art, Lenin remained politically extremely cautious in artistic questions, eagerly confessing his incompetence. The patronizing of all kinds of modernism by Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Art and Education, was often embarrassing to Lenin. But he confined himself to ironical remarks in private conversations, and remained remote from the idea of converting his literary tastes into law. In 1924, on the threshold of the new period, the author of this book thus formulated the relation of the state to the various artistic groups and tendencies: ‘while holding over them all the categorical criterion, for the revolution or against the revolution, to give them complete freedom in the sphere of artistic self-determination.’

While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick. During those first years, rich in hope and daring, there were created not only the most complete models of socialist legislation, but also the best productions of revolutionary literature. To the same times belong, it is worth remarking, the creation of those excellent Soviet films which, in spite of a poverty of technical means, caught the imagination of the whole world with the freshness and vigor of their approach to reality.”

This being completely at odds with what happened later as the Stalinist regime began to prevail:

“In the process of struggle against the party Opposition, the literary schools were strangled one after the other. It was not only a question of literature, either. The process of extermination took place in all ideological spheres, and it took place more decisively since it was more than half unconscious. The present ruling stratum considers itself called not only to control spiritual creation politically, but also to prescribe its roads of development. The method of command-without-appeal extends in like measure to the concentration camps, to scientific agriculture and to music. The central organ of the party prints anonymous directive editorials, having the character of military orders, in architecture, literature, dramatic art, the ballet, to say nothing of philosophy, natural science and history.”

This stifling of creative thought had a throughgoing effect in closing off scientific innovation, by insisting research be narrowly oriented to immediate practical tasks. Social science, including Marxism itself, fared far worse:

“In spite of the fact that Marxism is formally a state doctrine in the Soviet Union, there has not appeared during the last twelve years one Marxian investigation – in economics, sociology, history or philosophy – which deserves attention and translation into foreign languages. The Marxian works do not transcend the limit of scholastic compilations which say over the same old ideas, endorsed in advance, and shuffle over the same old quotations according to the demands of the current administrative conjuncture.

“Marxists who might say something valuable and independent are sitting in prison, or forced into silence, and this in spite of the fact that the evolution of social forms is raising gigantic scientific problems at every step!

“Even the explanatory notes to the complete works of Lenin are radically worked over in every new edition from the point of view of the personal interests of the ruling staff: the names of ‘leaders’ magnified, those of opponents vilified; tracks covered up. 

“Facts are distorted, documents concealed or fabricated, reputations created or destroyed. A simple comparison of the successive variants of one and the same book during the last twelve years permits us to trace infallibly the process of degeneration of the thought and conscience of the ruling stratum.”

The section closes with a scathing critique of the effect of the Stalinist regime upon art:

“No less ruinous is the effect of the ‘totalitarian’ regime upon artistic literature. The struggle of tendencies and schools has been replaced by interpretation of the will of the leaders. There has been created for all groups a general compulsory organization, a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature. … Gifted writers who cannot do sufficient violence to themselves are pursued by a pack of instructors armed with shamelessness and dozens of quotations. The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent….

“The Secretary of the Communist Youth said at a conference of writers: ‘The suggestions of Comrade Stalin are a law for everybody,’ and the whole audience applauded, although some doubtless burned with shame. As though to complete the mockery of literature, Stalin, who does not know how to compose a Russian phrase correctly, is declared a classic in the matter of style. There is something deeply tragic in this Byzantinism and police rule, notwithstanding the involuntary comedy of certain of its manifestations.”

Unfortunately, the consquences were clear, and they admitted it themselves.

“The leaders themselves are compelled to acknowledge that ‘neither the first nor the second five-year plan has yet given us a new literary wave which can rise above the first wave born in October.’ That is very mildly said. In reality, in spite of individual exceptions, the epoch of the Thermidor will go into the history of artistic creation pre-eminently as an epoch of mediocrities, laureates and toadies.”