Wednesday, April 1, 2009

1924: Literature and Revolution by Leon Trotsky

The Author: Leon Trotsky
Born in Ukraine (then a Russian province) in 1879, Lev Davidovich Bronstein was exiled to Siberia when he was twenty years old as punishment for his revolutionary activity in support of farmers and peasants. After his escape from prison, he began using the name "Leon Trotsky" and moved to London, where he and Vladimir Lenin edited a Russian-language journal. On his return to Russia in 1905, he was imprisoned again, and escaped a second time, in 1907. During World War I, he was deported from France and was working as a journalist in New York City in February 1917, when Lenin led the uprising that ousted the czar of Russia. By May of that year, Trotsky was back in Russia and less than a year later, he had become head of the Red Army. At the time of Lenin's death in 1924, Trotsky was the most prominent leader in Russia, but he was politically outmanuevered by Joseph Stalin, whose allies had him expelled from the Communist Party in 1927, deported in 1928, and, in 1941, assassinated in his home in Mexico.

An accomplished writer, speaker and theorist, Trotsky "insists that history shapes artistic production and that innovation in art arises from the pressures of historical context," yet he advocated a practical cultural policy that was "flexible and nondogmatic" in its approach to art.

The Text:
Literature and Revolution
This collection of essays was published by the Soviet government six months after Lenin's death. Six months later, its author was forced to resign his leadership position in the Russian military.
“Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes. But . .. [if] one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life, without seeing oneself in the ‘mirror’ of literature?” (Trotsky 136)

"The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft sufficient unto itself, devitalizes and kills art. The very need of such an operation is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline." (1015)

"It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! ...the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plow the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry." (1010) The image of the captured factory chimneys in the poster at left reads "Death to World Imperialism!"; it was designed in 1920.

"The form of art is, to a certain and very large degree, independent, but the artist who creates this form, and the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions. The creation and perception of art forms is one of the functions of this psychology." (1010)

"However fantastic art may be, it cannot have at its disposal any other material except that which is given to it by the world of three dimensions and by the narrower world of class society. Even when the artist creates heaven and hell, he merely transforms the experience of his own life into his phantasmagorias, almost to the point of his landlady's unpaid bill." (1013)

". . . one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or accept a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why." (1014)

Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 1968.

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