A truly human culture

Issue: 104

Gareth Jenkins

A review of Al Richardson (ed), Victor Serge, Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution (Francis Boutle, 2004), £12.99

we are told, dismisses culture, together with other superstructural activities, like law and religion, as marginal to the interests of the oppressed and the exploited. This crudely deterministic account has bolstered the opposing view that culture has no class determination, that it should be viewed as something free-floating, with its own value system and subject only to its internal laws of development.

It is, therefore, important to recover a quite different tradition within Marxism, one that neither succumbs to a reductionist, deterministic understanding of culture nor abandons culture to the enemy. Foremost in that tradition is, of course, Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution of 1924 analysed not only cultural and literary developments of the post-revolutionary period but provided a magnificent vision of an emancipated humanity developing a truly human culture. The recent publication in English of Alexander Voronsky’s writings (Art as the Cognition of Life) has revealed how other Russian Marxists of the period developed that tradition.

Now we have an important collection of Victor Serge’s writings, translated from French for the first time. Serge, who was active as an anarchist in France and Spain before joining the Bolsheviks in Russia and working for the Communist International in its early years, intended these writings for a French audience. They cover much the same ground as Trotsky but in the context of ‘advanced’ Western capitalism.

Serge’s starting point is the fate of intellectuals and culture in the modern world. For Serge, the First World War killed off the idea that intellectuals, including literary intellectuals, remained the guardians of a human heritage that transcended national boundaries.1 Most gave cover to their own side—by justifying the use of poison gas, by justifying censorship, and by stereotyping the enemy and its culture. Socialist intellectuals were not exempt from this corruption: they led the Second International in its betrayal of the working class movement and many were quick to denounce the Russian Revolution.

Serge sees this history of intellectual abdication as proof that there can be no such thing as ‘disembodied thought’. The cultivation of ideas does not transcend the division between those who labour and those who live off labour. Culture, in this broad sense, ‘is only accessible to those who have the leisure, the requisite education and the knowledge that can be acquired at monetary expense, by those who, in one way or another, benefit from the exploitation of crowds condemned to ignorance and thoughtlessness’ (p35).

Serge is not ignoring intellectuals who revolted in the name of pacifism, or freedom of opinion. He is, rather, saying that even the bravest of ‘oppositional ideologies produced by the culture of the controlling classes’ cannot avoid the reality that ‘all thinking—apart from that of the proletariat—serves, whatever its twists, to justify and perpetuate the domination of capital over labour’ (p36).

Intellectuals have to recognise, therefore, that it is not their words, but the working class through the forcefulness of its action, which will end the threat of war and change the world. This recognition, Serge sees, is enormously difficult for them, temperamentally attached as they are to the ‘very forms of their thought’, ‘their love for a culture of which they are the privileged captives’ and ‘their material and moral position within the capitalist system’ (p36).

How is proletarian thinking developed? Serge was deeply sympathetic to the infant Soviet republic’s attempt to raise the cultural level of the working class. If the working class was to defend itself against both its external and internal enemies it not only needed the physical means of survival—it needed to cleanse itself of the muck of ages.2 Workers had therefore to have access to culture. But what kind of culture? Clearly, culture (as Serge showed) was always a class culture. So could a new proletarian culture be created?

Proletarian culture, as theorised and practised in the USSR in the early 1920s, is something Serge rejects. Quoting Trotsky more than once, he argues that there can be no such thing because of the fundamental difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in realising their class aims. The bourgeoisie has had centuries to create its culture. Long before the bourgeoisie seized power it had the opportunity to encourage intellectual and creative activity that reflected its needs. No such opportunity exists for the working class because of the way it is exploited under capitalism. The working class lacks property (including cultural property)—unlike the bourgeoisie. Its only weapon is self-organisation. Its historic mission is the dissolution of all property relations—unlike the bourgeoisie, whose mission is to secure capitalist property relations. The role of the working class is not to constitute itself as a new ruling class (in the traditional sense) but to prepare for the abolition of all classes—including itself. Its role is transitional in that it leads to the creation not of a proletarian society but of a truly human society, the creation not of proletarian culture but of a truly human culture.

Serge’s objection to the theory of proletarian culture was its ultra-radical dismissal of all past culture as non-proletarian. It failed to recognise that workers could, and would have to, master previous cultures to realise their historic mission. What ‘proletkultists’ were demanding was the creation of an artificial culture, with themselves as its self-appointed guardians and their monopoly over cultural production sanctioned by the party. Far from this being an attempt to develop genuine self-expression among workers it was a move towards foisting an artificial and sectarian culture on them. ‘Consequently, as Serge pointed out, a “proletarian literature” produced to order, with its stress on a “correct” political line and characters drawn according to abstract types, was a lifeless and schematic affair.’

Serge does appear to contradict himself on the question of proletarian culture in a 1928 interview in which he states:

‘A working class that has become conscious of itself…does have its own ways of feeling, of understanding life, of suffering, of laughing and of fighting; it has its way of thinking about society, the state, the laws, work and the family; it has, in a word, its world view and its historic mission. But until now all this has only been expressed to a limited extent for political ends in the class struggle. One could easily imagine a literature that expresses this proletarian feeling about life… A proletarian literature is possible’ (p53).

And he qualifies his support for Trotsky’s view with the following reservation:

‘Like the armies of old, they will have their bards, their storytellers, their musicians and their philosophers… In this historically limited sense there will be, and there already is, a culture of the militant proletariat’ (p47).3

Serge may have thought that Trotsky’s polemic against proletarian culture was too negative.4 He was also familiar with a very different tradition in France about proletarian culture, whose concern was with how the working class develops its own intellectual resources to resist the culture of the ruling class and which had nothing to do with Proletkult.5 There is a sense in which Serge wanted to rescue this broader vision from the danger of its being identified solely with the target of Trotsky’s polemic.6 The ferocity of Trotsky’s attack can be explained by the specifics of the Russian situation, where the idea that the working class should turn its back on ‘alien’ culture renounced the goal of a truly human culture. Serge, with his focus on western Europe, was probably anxious not to lose sight of how writers could be won to developing a culture in the service of the working class (proletarian culture in the broad sense).

Serge’s analysis of the challenges facing the modern writer takes in an extremely wide and diverse range of novelists and poets—from Walt Whitman to the surrealists. But the bulk of his writing is devoted to examining the Russian writers (‘fellow travellers’, to adopt Trotsky’s term) who came over to the revolution and whose works sparked a renaissance of Russian literature in the 1920s (before Stalinism snuffed it out).

Like Trotsky and Voronsky, Serge asserts that literature cannot be valued in didactic or propagandistic terms. Speaking of the novel, Serge says that its ‘unique value’ ‘comes from the fact that it presents to man something other than political slogans or demands; ways of feeling, coming alive in our deepest feelings, understanding the other person and understanding ourselves, loving and becoming passionate about it’. Moreover:

‘A complete attempt to subordinate creative activity, where a number of conscious and unconscious factors come into play, to a rigorously conscious direction would result in an awkward impoverishment of the work and personality. Would the book gain in clarity of ideas what it has lost in spontaneity, human complexity, deep sincerity, and rich contradictions?’ (p88).

However, Serge’s openness to imaginative literature does not imply a laissez-faire attitude. He is aware that class and ideology are always at work within literature, even if ‘in an indirect and distant way, apparently loose and invisible to all but the analyst’ (p88) and is also aware that formal techniques that characterise a writer’s approach to his subject are linked to the way class and ideology work on a writer’s subject matter.

Serge shows how form and class interrelate in the Russian writers of the 1920s. They are, he points out, too young to have any roots in the literary world of the pre-revolutionary period, while the hardship they experienced means that they have not learnt ‘about “life’s epic venture” out of old books’ (p173). Consequently ‘present day literature shows a renewal of the language, enriched by returning to its roots in the speech of the masses’ (p174).

Discussing Boris Pilnyak, the best of these fellow travellers, Serge says that it is impossible for him to use the style of a Balzac or an Anatole France (both writers in the great realist tradition that started in the 19th century):

‘The revolution that broke all the old social habits also broke the all too conventional ones of literature. There is no story line to be followed in this Russian writer. There is no “plot” (a poor thing, a poor word!). There are no distinctive, central personalities. There are crowds in movement—in which each is a world, an end in itself—events which overturn, cross over, mix up, overlap with each other, multiple lives that appear and disappear, all rare, unique and central, since they are human, all of them insignificant in “Russia, the snow storm, the revolution”, for the one thing that remains and matters is the country, the masses, the storm…’(p202).

To characterise Pilnyak’s fiction thus is to recognise him as in some sense a ‘modernist’.7 But much as he admires Pilnyak’s ability to capture the reality of the revolution without sentimentality, Serge pinpoints a weakness in the very ‘idea of the revolution-storm so dear to Boris Pilnyak’:

‘Looked at from the outside by a foreign observer, the revolution might appear to be a prodigious unleashing of elemental forces. But if that is all it had been, it would have been limited to a primitive jacquerie [feudal peasant rebellion] which the possessing classes, sufficiently well organised, would in the end have been able to get under control. It is really a matter of peasant revolution which was well and truly created in Russia, assisted, led and supported by the proletarian movement’ (p217).

This identification with the revolution only through its peasant aspect (and so omitting its central working class component) is one Serge sees as shared by many Russian writers of the 1920s—an identification which gives their writing its strength but also poses a challenge to how they might develop as writers.

Mayakovsky is a very different kind of writer. As a poet of the city, he identifies with the urban masses, not the peasantry. But Serge’s ‘literary’ analysis of his vivid use of language and his tendency to rhetorical extravagance is linked to the strengths and weaknesses of Mayakovsky’s ideological outlook. His critique is that his weaknesses as a poet are rooted in his ‘pastism’: in the ‘mad individualism’ that characterises the capitalist society of the past, not the communist society of the future, where a true human individuality will flourish. So Mayakovsky’s fondness for hyperbole, most evident in his poem ‘One Hundred and Fifty Million’, where the colossal Russian Ivan confronts the fat colossus, Woodrow Wilson, is the antithesis of proletarian thinking and revolutionary realism (pp266-270).8

Serge was quite clear that literature should not toe the party line. At the same time, however, literature was not treated as exempt, by virtue of its artistic status, from political intervention. Precisely because Serge took literature (and culture) seriously as part of the struggle for the working class to advance the interests of humanity, his literary and cultural criticism is an attempt to lead writers towards an understanding of how they need to absorb a new outlook on the world, that of the working class, to give new depths to their work. His analysis, sympathetic but politically firm, is designed to encourage them to a deeper understanding and commitment to proletarian revolution—an understanding which will enrich their creativity.

Serge’s vision is broader than the limits set by Soviet Russia of the 1920s. He sees the same need for commitment and renewal in the West. Serge’s argument, sketchy though it is, is not dissimilar from Georg Lukács’s thesis in The Historical Novel about the decline in bourgeois thought and culture as the rise of the working class reduces it to apologetics.9 But unlike Lukács, whose model of literature is too inflexibly rooted in the past, Serge is open, but not uncritically open, to modern literature. It is implicit in his approach that the task of literature is to explore, in complex and rounded ways, the nature of the world. In other words, writers should be judged for their realism—they cannot retreat into producing self-contained, self-referential work, as certain versions of formalist modernism would have it.

Serge’s call is for a literature that asked the great questions of modern life, that was interested in the future of the world, that understood work and the workers, that in other words had discovered the hitherto unknown nine tenths of society—which did not limit itself to describing the world, but now and again might think about changing it, in a word, was active and no longer passive, would appeal to human potentialities, and would respond to every spiritual need instead of confining itself to amusing the rich; even independently of the intentions of its creators, a literature of this sort would be tremendously revolutionary. Its development from then on would be contrary to the interests of the possessing classes (p84).

This collection shows how revolutionaries can combine, without crudeness, formal and political analysis in a way that both respects literature as literature and sees it engaged with the struggle to change the world.


1: Serge is, nevertheless, positive about this heritage when he looks at the role played by Enlightenment intellectuals in pre-revolutionary France.

2: In his articles from the early 1920s, on such diverse matters as drink, swearing, correct forms of speech and how workers should write for newspapers, published in Problems of Everyday Life (New York, 1973), Trotsky shows just how seriously the Bolsheviks undertook this cultural task.

3: Serge wrote this for the French journal Clarté in 1925, in the heat of the debate about proletarian literature in Russia. He quotes these, his own words, in his later Literature and Revolution (1932).

4: Serge hints as much when he writes of Trotsky’s Literature after October that ‘so cruel are some words that they cut as sharp as a lancet, and so summary are some judgements that they are like a bludgeon’ (p164).

5: See, for example, M Martinet, Culture Prolétarienne (Paris, 1935).

6: It is evident from early Soviet pronouncements that ‘proletarian culture’ was used confusingly to cover two different definitions. It was Lenin who seems first to have demanded clarification. See, for example, his demand in 1920 that the Central Committee should draw up a draft resolution which promotes proletarian culture as an educational project but rejects any idea that this should be an attempt ‘to invent one’s own particular brand of culture’—V I Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1966), p317. Note, however, that Lenin continues to use the term positively in the first sense.

7: Serge is unlikely to have known the term. But Serge’s mention of other aspects of Pilnyak’s style—for example, his ‘simultaneism’ and his love for ‘a phrase or catchphrase picked up in the street and reproduced without explanation’ (p203)—suggests that he was well aware of new developments in fiction in the period. (Serge’s admiration for the modernist American writer John Dos Passos is well known: see his Memoirs [Oxford, 1967], p263, which interestingly links Dos Passos to Pilnyak as well as to Serge’s own fiction.)

8: Serge’s analysis is very close to Trotsky’s (see his Literature and Revolution [London, 1991], pp177-188), but both praised Mayakovsky’s tremendous talent.

9: It is clear from his Memoirs that Serge was personally acquainted with Lukács, whom he held in ‘greatest esteem; indeed, I owe him a great deal’ (p187), and who was ‘fairly well disposed towards me’ (p188). This thumbnail sketch, which also includes sharp criticism of Lukács’s complicity with Stalinism, is maddeningly vague about what his debt to Lukács was: could it have included insights into literature?