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The social roots and the social function of literature

 

14017951_10155276889092316_891000640_n (2)The following excerpts are taken from an article by Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, written in 1923 after the working class overthrew Tsarism and capitalism. With insightful passages, Trotsky responds to crude, reductionist arguments about the historic development of literature and art, and how art could develop under socialism. He was a fierce defender of the independence of art from political and economic control.

The quarrels about “pure art” and about “art with a [political] tendency” took place between the liberals and the “populists”. They do not become us. Materialist dialectics [scientific socialism] is above this. From the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian.

It finds the necessary rhythm of words for dark and vague moods; it brings thought and feeling closer or contrasts them with one another; it enriches the spiritual experience of the individual and of the community; it refines feeling, makes it more flexible, more responsive; it enlarges the volume of thought in advance and not through the personal method of accumulated experience; it educates the individual, the social group, the class and the nation. And this it does quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a ‘pure’ or of a frankly tendentious [political] art…

The Marxist point of view is far removed from these tendencies, which were historically necessary, but which have become historically passé. Keeping on the plane of scientific investigation, Marxism seeks with the same assurance the social roots of the “pure” as well as of the tendentious art.

It does not at all “incriminate” a poet with the thoughts and feelings which he expresses, but raises questions of a much more profound significance: namely, to which order of feelings does a given artistic work correspond in all its peculiarities? What are the social conditions of these thoughts and feelings? What place do they occupy in the historic development of a society and of a class? And, further, what literary heritage has entered into the elaboration of the new form? Under the influence of what historic impulse have the new complexes of feelings and thoughts broken through the shell which divides them from the sphere of poetic consciousness?

The investigation may become complicated, detailed or individualised. But its fundamental idea will be that of the subsidiary role which art plays in the social process [as a product of changing social ideas].

Each class has its own policy in art – that is, a system of presenting demands on art, which changes with time… The social and even the personal dependence of art was not concealed, but was openly announced as long as art retained its court character [as a luxury or tool of the aristocratic elite]. The wider, more popular, anonymous character of the rising bourgeoisie [capitalist class] led, on the whole, to the theory of “pure art,” though there were many deviations from this theory.

As indicated above, the tendentious literature of the “populist” intelligentsia was imbued with a class interest; the intelligentsia could not strengthen itself and could not conquer for itself a right to play a part in history without the support of the people. But in the revolutionary struggle, the class egotism of the intelligentsia was turned inside out, and in its left wing, it assumed the form of highest self-sacrifice. That is why the intelligentsia not only did not conceal art with a tendency, but proclaimed it, thus sacrificing art, just as it sacrificed many other things.

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. 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!

Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat [working class] in the centre of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions…

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 crystallised 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. And no matter how wise the formalists [those who study artistic form without examining content] try to be, their whole conception is simply based upon the fact that they ignore the psychological unity of the social human, who creates and who consumes what has been created.

The worker has to have in art the expression of the new spiritual point of view which is just beginning to be formulated within him, and to which art must help him give form. This is not a state order, but a historic demand. Its strength lies in the objectivity of historic necessity. You cannot pass this by, nor escape its force…

The fact that different peoples and different classes of the same people make use of the same themes merely shows how limited the human imagination is, and how man tries to maintain an economy of energy in every kind of creation, even in the artistic. Every class tries to utilise, to the greatest possible degree, the material and spiritual heritage of another class…

Artistic creation… is also a deflection, a changing and a transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art. 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…

Yes, themes migrate from people to people, from class to class, and even from author to author. This means only that the human imagination is economical. A new class does not begin to create all of culture from the beginning, but enters into possession of the past, assorts it, touches it up, rearranges it, and builds on it further. If there were no such utilisation of the ‘second-hand’ wardrobe of the ages, historic processes would have no progress at all…

It is unquestionably true that the need for art is not created by economic conditions. But neither is the need for food created by economics. On the contrary, the need for food and warmth creates economics.

It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or to 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…

It would be childish to think that every class can entirely and fully create its own art from within itself, and, particularly, that the proletariat is capable of creating a new art by means of closed art guilds or circles, or by the Organisation for Proletarian Culture [established after the revolution, and which aimed to replace artworks and artforms produced under capitalist society with what it imagined would be an entirely unconnected ‘proletarian’ art].

Generally speaking, the artistic work of man is continuous. Each new rising class places itself on the shoulders of its preceding one. But this continuity is dialectic, that is, it finds itself by means of internal repulsions and breaks. New artistic needs or demands for new literary and artistic points of view are stimulated by economics, through the development of a new class, and minor stimuli are supplied by changes in the position of the class, under the influence of the growth of its wealth and cultural power…

Artistic creation is always a complicated turning inside out of old forms, under the influence of new stimuli which originate outside of art. In this large sense of the word, art is a handmaiden. It is not a disembodied element feeding on itself, but a function of social man indissolubly tied to his life and environment…

Literature, whose methods and processes have their roots far back in the most distant past and represent the accumulated experience of verbal craftsmanship, expresses the thoughts, feelings, moods, points of view and hopes of the new epoch and of its new class. One cannot jump beyond this. And there is no need of making the jump – at least for those who are not serving an epoch already past, nor a class which has already outlived itself…

To a materialist [believer in science], religion, law, morals and art represent separate aspects of one and the same process of social development. Though they differentiate themselves from their industrial basis, become complex, strengthen and develop their special characteristics in detail, politics, religion, law, ethics and aesthetics remain, nonetheless, functions of social man and obey the laws of his social organisation.

The idealist, on the other hand, does not see a unified process of historic development which evolves the necessary organs and functions from within itself, but a crossing or combining and interacting of certain independent principles – the religious, political, juridical, aesthetic and ethical substances, which find their origin and explanation in themselves.

To read the full article, visit the Marxist Internet Archive at marxists.org/archive/trotsky.

Leon Trotsky helped lead the Russian revolution, alongside Vladimir Lenin and others in the Bolshevik party, which installed the world’s first democratic workers’ state. The invasion of 21 capitalist armies, followed by the failure of revolutions in neighbouring countries, isolated the revolution. Eventually that allowed a bureuacratic dictatorship to take control.

Trotsky was a staunch opponent of capitalism, absolutism and Stalinism. His ideas and methods, along with those of Lenin, Marx and Engels, form the political basis of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

 

 

 

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