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Reading :: Literature and Revolution

Posted by: on Feb 15, 2017 | No Comments
Literature and Revolution
By Leon Trotsky

(The link goes to Amazon, but you can also find this book at, from where I copied and pasted the quotes.)

I confess that I have zero interest in literature. However, Lev Vygotsky had a deep interest in the subject, which was the topic of his dissertation The Psychology of Art (which says was written 1917, but defended in 1925). Like Vygotsky, Trotsky was a Jewish intellectual whose fortunes had dramatically improved through the 1917 Revolution, one who was enthralled with literature. So Trotsky's 1923 book Literature and Revolution—published before Stalin consolidated power, a year before Lenin's death, and a year before Vygotsky's invitation to join the Psychological Institute in Moscow—made a deep impact on Vygotsky and was incorporated and quoted in the dissertation, defended just two years later. And what would be safer than quoting the scholarship of one of the leaders of the Revolution?

By 1927, Trotsky had lost his struggle with Stalin and been removed from power. By February 1929, he had been exiled from the Soviet Union. And when Vygotsky's dissertation was published in the USSR in the mid-1960s, his quote of Trotsky was excised. But Trotsky's influence is still detectable sub rosa even in Vygotsky's 1930 essay "The Socialist Alteration of Man" (discussed in an earlier review). Specifically, this influence was Trotsky's vision of the New Soviet Man, a vision that thrived in the USSR, detached from Trotsky.

The passage that Vygotsky quoted is at the end of this book, but let's start at the beginning and get the building blocks in place. In this book, Trotsky contemplates the question of revolutionary literature, which he regards as a vital question: yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat must solve elementary problems first (food, clothing, shelter, literacy); but "the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch," including the Soviet epoch then at hand (p.29). At this point, non-Revolutionary literature was "dying, together with the classes which it served" (p.32). He adds that although "there are decades of struggle ahead of us, in Europe and in America," the Revolution would win out, and its art with it. Trotsky was an optimist: "This new art is incompatible with pessimism, with skepticism, and with all the other forms of spiritual collapse. It is realistic, active, vitally collectivist, and filled with a limitless creative faith in the Future" (p.33). One can see why Vygotsky, also an optimist, would be drawn to this vision.

Trotsky categorizes all literature as non-Revolutionary (or pre-Revolutionary), transitional, or bourgeois; the art of the Revolution was not yet born at this point (p.61). After all, the Revolution itself was in a transitional phase, currently ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat—which at this point Trotsky had accepted was going to last longer than he had thought in 1917. "When we wish to denounce the all-too-optimistic views about the transition to socialism, we point out that the period of the social revolution, on a world scale, will last not months and not years, but decades—decades, but not centuries, and certainly not thousands of years" (p.154). In addressing whether a proletariat art might arise during this short timeline, he describes the coming new society as a prophet might describe Heaven:
But one may answer: It took thousands of years to create the slave-owning art and only hundreds of years for the bourgeois art. Why, then, could not proletarian art be created in tens of years? The technical bases of life are not at all the same at present and therefore the tempo is also different. This objection, which at first sight seems convincing, in reality misses the crux of the question. Undoubtedly, in the development of the new society, the time will come when economics, cultural life and art will receive the greatest impulse forward. At the present time we can only create fancies about their tempo. In a society which will have thrown off the pinching and stultifying worry about one’s daily bread, in which community restaurants will prepare good, wholesome and tasteful food for all to choose, in which communal laundries will wash clean everyone’s good linen, in which children, all the children, will be well fed and strong and gay, and in which they will absorb the fundamental elements of science and art as they absorb albumen and air and the warmth of the sun, in a society in which electricity and the radio will not be the crafts they are today, but will come from inexhaustible sources of super-power at the call of a central button, in which there will be no “useless mouths”, in which the liberated egotism of man – a mighty force! – will be directed wholly towards the understanding, the transformation and the betterment of the universe – in such a society the dynamic development of culture will be incomparable with anything that went on in the past. But all this will come only after a climb, prolonged and difficult, which is still ahead of us. And we are speaking only about the period of the climb. (p.157)
 And this new art will have certain characteristics, revived from the old forms:
One cannot tell whether revolutionary art will succeed in producing “high” revolutionary tragedy. But Socialist art will revive tragedy. Without God, of course. The new art will be atheist. It will also revive comedy, because the new man of the future will want to laugh. It will give new life to the novel. It will grant all rights to lyrics, because the new man will love in a better and stronger way than did the old people, and he will think about the problems of birth and death. The new art will revive all the old forms, which arose in the course of the development of the creative spirit. The disintegration and decline of these forms are not absolute, that is, they do not mean that these forms are absolutely incompatible with the spirit of the new age. All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to re-feel its feelings. (p.199)
 And "the shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous" (p.206).

And here we get to the quote that Vygotsky inserted into The Psychology of Art. I've included a page and a half's worth so that you can see what Trotsky was driving at, but I've also emphasized what I think are the most strikingly Vygotskian parts of the quote:
More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death. 
Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman
It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise. (pp.206-207, my emphasis)
A few things here. First, if you've wondered why Vygotsky transitioned from his first love (literature) to psychology, perhaps this passage will provide insight: "Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?" As Marx says in his "Theses on Feuerbach," "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." I can imagine this vision being tremendously compelling for a young idealist Vygostky, and Trotsky's statement would have reinforced this decision (although not sparked it).

Second, the theme of self-mastery is strong throughout; this theme, under the heading of mediation, shows up in Vygotsky's "instrumental" period in the 1920s. Specifically, this mediational account mingles with Vygotsky's reading of Engels' origin story of man in the 1930 book he wrote with Luria. (It also accords with Trotsky's declaration, following Marx, that "in the beginning was the deed" (p.153).

Third, Vygotsky's essay "The Soviet Alteration of Man" reads as a straightforward elaboration of this block quote. In particular, Trotsky's closing declaration that "The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx" seems to be echoed in Vygotsky's closing declaration that "one could say that new forms of labour will create the new man and that this new man will resemble the old kind of man, ‘the old Adam’, in name only, in the same way as, according to Spinoza’s great statement, a dog, the barking animal, resembles the heavenly constellation Dog."

So, although I continue not to be interested in the study of literature, this literary book helped me to better understand the works of Vygotsky. If you're interested in that goal as well, check it out.