Proletkult, an early 20th century independent soviet organisation with designs on cultural education for all, was a lot more than just a collection of avant-garde artists. This struck a chord with me, not least because so many people I meet in rural Bulgaria aren’t exactly as literate as you might expect in an EU member state, and I think Proletkult’s rise and fall also mirrors a lot of the revolutions that are going on around the world. On top of that, one of its ideas was to dismantle the artificial borders between art and science with the notion that critical enquiry and creativity are fundamental to both.
Too much control ends in disaster. Control can bring about efficient and radical change, but it also harbours resentment in those that are its subject, as the Proletkult movement of the first half of the 20th century Soviet history, and more contemporary revolutions, ought to be reminding us.
Reading through Culture of the Future, I am struck by the descriptions of the principles (varied and contradictory though they often were) of the Proletkult organisation. Crucially, the facets that make up such a movement should be in a constant state of flux. Much like the Gonzo of my previous post, Proletkult was a jazzy-sounding portmanteau that was tailored by those who used it to fit the shoulders of the nouveau elite as well as those of the proletariat. Its objective: to transform Russian culture, a metamorphosis entirely necessary amid the dawn of the industrial revolution and the dusk of the Russian Empire. Most of the peasantry were illiterate, and with the advent of machinery something drastic had to be done. Cultural unification and the rejection of elitism was seen as essential for progress and achieving the utopian ideal.
Culture of the Future defines the rise and fall of Proletkult – so hopeful to begin with, perhaps naively so. While its ideals were inspired by the revolution that stormed the Winter Palace, the allegiance of the two was nothing more than a brief love affair. Two roads, appearing parallel, drifting ever further apart. From the revolution crumbling, giving way to a fresh yet unstable economic and political landscape, emerged a new paranoia that was to be the tumour stifling the realisation of the communist dream as it was originally conceived. Communism demanded the prescription of the arts, the tight control of culture that served at once to empower and to stifle dissenting voices: cultural unification. Proletkult demanded independence, worked for cultural unification, yet was sponsored by the state. It is interesting that we can see so clearly with hindsight how this could never have been achieved.
Proletkult was seen as a critical element in the progress of national culture. The organisation, led by Aleksandr Bogdanov, with a presence in over 300 regions across Russian, reached 400,000 members, and this made Lenin uneasy. What to do in this situation? Maintain the independent cultural voice, allowing their criticisms a voice in national and local policy? That is democracy. Stifle their voice and spark a revolution..? This is not exactly unfamiliar ground to us today, as we witness many overbearing governments dealing with this decision either very conspicuously or in a more clandestine fashion.
Proletkult is a confusing hubbub of ideas. It is also hypocritical; such a notion of the romance of the proletariat (much in the manner of the rustic charms of the Noble Savage) could only be cooked up by the intellectual elite. This does not make it any less admirable, however; the notion of equality is at its root. Its objective was the engagement of the proletariat, because fundamentally it recognised that education was the key to progress as a nation. But how this was achieved, and to what degree, was a topic of some conflict. To make matters worse, Proletkult leader Bogdanov was, in the beginning, a rival for the leadership of the Bolshevik party, which Lenin obviously won. This gives Bogdanov a distinctly hubristic taint – an impression of his underlying political motivations. If it wasn’t for this fact, perhaps the organisation would have survived longer than it did – but then again, perhaps it would not have been born either.