A large part of the cultural revolution was the discovery of literary and art forms which would properly represent Soviet man and his aspirations at the same time as being comprehensible to him. Lenin made clear his views on the subject in an interview with Klara Zetkin, stressing that a proletarian culture would take a long time to develop. Although he pointed out that efforts were being made to take enlightenment to the provinces, he also made the observation that at the very time when here in Moscow a few tens of thousands of people are enjoying a brilliant theatrical performance, throughout the country millions are still striving to spell their names, and have to be told that the earth is not flat but round and that the world is governed by the laws of nature instead of by witches and sorcerers jointly with the Heavenly Father.' At the same time Lenin confessed that he himself had little appreciation for some of the newer forms of expression and declared himself a barbarian. Nevertheless, Lenin did not interfere very much with artistic freedom, as Stalin was to do. As for Trotsky, he went even further than Lenin, pointing out that since bourgeois culture required no less than five centuries for its creation, the proletariat would have to follow the one possible path of apprenticeship for many years to come, concentrating the bulk of its immediate energy on the proletarian world revolution. Meanwhile the leading members of the class could not through 'laboratory methods' build the proletarian culture by themselves.Trotsky, in this passage, sounds very much like a relic of his time, an unimaginative exponent of unilinear cultural progress based obviously on a crude base-superstructure reductionism. Lenin appears much more reasonable, although in essence he is saying the same thing: to follow his line of thinking, the inequality of cultural development among the Russian people is analogous to the disparities in economic development between the city and the country. In our age of henna tattoos and neoprimitivism, such a naive view of culture is rarely seen outside of the Civilization games. (In another decade or so, the influence of the Civ technology model on the contemporary history of ideas will be deserving of a book all on its own. But that's a whole other story.)
- Paul Dukes, A History of Russia (1974 edition)
What Trotsky doesn't seem to take into account is that the Russian avantgarde aimed to do for the superstructure what the Bolsheviks did for the base. The latter attempted to reduce the hundred-odd years between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist one to a span of eight months--and buoyed up by the success of that attempt, the avantgarde erased the five hundred years of bourgeois culture as well. Perhaps it would be unfair to read too much into Trotsky's claim, which I have not encountered in his work; still, I do not imagine shacking up with Frida Kahlo to be the act of a cultural conservative.
How, then, could Trotsky not take into account the claim's central problem, the coexistence of bourgeois culture with a socialist economy and society? The Stalin-era rapprochement with Biedermeier canons of taste was still not in the offing, and in fact was never well-justified to begin with. One imagines, too, that Trotsky was reading Lukacs and thus had some sense of the impact of class relations on aesthetics. Neither universal literacy nor spelling reform nor electrification would be able to erase the class-bound aspect of those five centuries, and institutionalized atheism would be only a partial solution.
It becomes clear, then, that the avantgarde position corresponded to that of Orthodox Marxism, while Trotsky's radically clashed with it. Indeed, if the Party apparatus had followed him, all ideological coherence would collapse: since political forms (as well as legal ones, as Pashukanis would soon show) were superstructural in relation to the economy, the decoupling of culture from the economy would open the door to the decoupling from it of law and politics. The entire raison d'etre of the Party-State and the Revolution itself would disappear. The only sustainable position would be trade-union consciousness. The heavens would rain fire and the rivers would run red with blood.
This did not happen--but Trotsky was nonetheless correct. The most, in the Marxist understanding, anachronistic cultural and social forms did coexist in post-revolutionary Russia. (A particularly fascinating Cheka report from a troublesome rural province declares that the peasants are refusing to work on account of their belief that the Apocalypse is nigh and Lenin is the Antichrist). By the time Lenin died, it had already become clear that this situation would not disappear in the foreseeable future. The history of the Bolsheviks' accommodation to this fact is the history of the replacement of Soviet Marxism by its simulacrum.