Brave New Worlds

Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy

by Zenovia A. Sochor
Cornell University Press, 258 pp., $29.95


The exiled Russian historians Aleksandr Nekrich and Mikhail Heller, in the introduction to their book Utopia in Power, wrote that in the great wars of history, defeat for the losers has always meant more than extermination or slavery. It has meant, and means,

that the conquerors write the history of their wars; the victors take possession of the past, establish their control over the collective memory.1

In the Soviet utopia, they argued, manipulation of memory in the service of power was carried to a level previously unknown to mankind. Following the formulas of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, history was rewritten in order to deprive citizens of the faculty of memory, which makes people human, and to allow those who controlled the past to do what they wished.

Their book was written in 1982. The dramatic changes that have happened since then owe much to the efforts of Russian historians such as these two to keep the national memory alive. In a tenacious guerrilla warfare against the official version of the past, they recorded testimonies, rescued documents, fought for the physical preservation of monuments, and sometimes even managed (as Nekrich did with his book on the German invasion of Russia, which appeared toward the end of the thaw) to print accounts of the recent past which questioned the wisdom of the top leaders.

These historians must find ironic satisfaction in the fact that the official Soviet press is now energetically engaged in the reconstruction of the national memory. Pravda publishing house has embarked on an ambitious project to reprint the works of previously banned Russian thinkers. Bukharin, who challenged Lenin’s and Stalin’s vision of socialism, has been rehabilitated, his works published and discussed. The official version of history as the inevitable and triumphal march to the Soviet utopia has been quietly abandoned; with encouragement from above, the Soviet intelligentsia discuss paths that were not taken but might still be open, and even alternative utopias, visions of hope in the current confusion.

This ferment of interest in history’s losers has affected Western historians of Russia as well. Steven Cohen’s book Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 19172 has been followed by a number of studies suggesting that the outcome of the Russian Revolution was by no means as predetermined as has been believed; that there were other strands in Russian radical thought, and in the Bolshevik party itself, which might have resulted in a more humanist form of socialism. In Russia, the search to find pointers to the future by resurrecting the past makes sense: ideas and movements have a better chance of succeeding if they are rooted in a national experience. Russian intellectuals, painfully aware of their ignorance of their own traditions, are turning to Western scholars for help (for example, Cohen’s book on Bukharin was published and was widely read in Russian translation in Moscow two years ago).

It is disturbing therefore that some of the most stimulating recent work in the West on the history of the revolutionary period is intensely partisan, proceeding on the often unargued assumption that the idealists who challenged the utopia in power were not in danger of being corrupted themselves. Two recent books on alternative Russian utopias—one by the Georgetown University scholar Richard Stites and the other by Zenovia Sochor, who teaches at Cornell—share this assumption.

The utopian vision,” Stites writes, “…was the best thing that nineteenth century Russian intellectual and cultural history bequeathed to the twentieth century, and not the disaster that some critics have called it.” The subject of his book is the social and cultural experiments that took place during the immediate postrevolutionary period, when, as one observer put it,

all aspects of existence were opened to purposeful fashioning by human hands. Everywhere the driving passion was to create something new, to effect a total difference with the “old world” and its civilization…. The storm passed nobody by; neither those who treated it as a blessing nor those who spurned it as a curse.

Stites’s enthusiastic and highly entertaining book attempts to recreate the extraordinary atmosphere of Russia between 1917 and 1928, when extravagant hopes flourished against a background of civil war, economic breakdown, rural backwardness, and social misery, and people in government or in sympathy with it attempted to fashion a human type previously unknown to history. The Bolshevik revolution was the first in modern times to attempt the fundamental reordering of all aspects of social life. Stites argues that, until Stalinism, the “utopian propensity” of Russian society fused with the Bolshevik programs to modernize Soviet life and to bring about social justice, and that this fusion added emotional force to the attempt to build an earthly paradise.

His book is concerned mainly with specific experiments in “culture building.” It discusses attempts to create a new aesthetic by revolutionary artists such as the Futurists; new values, as in the efforts to replace bourgeois and peasant morality with a more proletarian and egalitarian one; new rituals aimed at supplanting the Orthodox Church, such as the cult of Lenin in the 1920s; and new patterns of personal and social behavior, inspired by a revolt against deference and the urge for social leveling.

The book also gives a brief survey of visions of the ideal society expressed in architecture and in social theories and experiments in collective living by proponents of the “Urbanist” school, such as L.M. Sabsovich, who envisaged “industrial-agrarian cities” formed from complexes of communal buildings: and the “Disurbanists” such as Mikhail Okhitovich, who advocated the dissolution of cities altogether. Stites also evokes the fictional fantasies of ideal communities of the future by novelists and popular science-fiction writers such as Okunev and Nikolsky, now mostly forgotten.

Stites gives an impressive account of the range and inventiveness of the millenarian fantasies circulating after the Bolsheviks came to power; but he tries also to convince the reader of the moral incorruptibility of these fantasies. He argues that the utopian experiments of the Twenties gave the Revolution its “human dimension,” a sense of justice and dignity that was swept away when Stalin declared his war on the utopias. While he admits that Stalinism was itself a utopia (in the sense that it was based on a myth of well-being and a cult of the benevolent ruler) he believes that its bureaucratic authoritarianism distinguished it from even the least libertarian of the social visions of the Twenties. But this view is not supported by the evidence in his book.

There seem to have been remarkably few libertarian visions of the ideal society in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. A number of anti-Bolshevik (mostly anarchist) attempts to establish communal societies were snuffed out soon after the Revolution. The most significant of these was the commune of sailors on the naval base of Kronstadt. Between 1917 and 1921 they formed a virtually independent community whose methods of decision-making were inspired by the traditional Russian village assemblies. Their attacks on the Bolshevik “commissarocracy” and their demands for democratic control by the workers led to their bloody repression by the Soviet army under Trotsky.

The story of the Kronstadt rebellion has been well documented as have the adventures of the “mobile army” organized in the Ukraine by the anarchist leader Makhno. But it would have been interesting to be told more about other libertarian models of which Stites notes only that some were eccentric and bizarre, others serious and practical. Kropotkin is the only serious social the orist mentioned who is also clearly a libertarian. In outlining his ideal of a stateless federation of communes, Kropotkin declined to provide specific details, on the grounds that the needs and aspirations of a future generation could not be predicted or prescribed. Yet he is mentioned in only two paragraphs, rather less than is devoted to the “conductorless orchestra,” which flourished throughout the 1920s, and whose sev-enty musicians formed an anarchist utopia in miniature.

The paucity of evidence of the anarchist spirit in the utopias of the period gives the reader the sense that the single factor uniting the most diverse of them in the creation of a new culture was their hostility to that spirit. These utopias were opposed to the unruly, unregimented, and unpredictable elements of life. The visions of a new world that dominated Russia in the Twenties were for the most part founded on a cult of reason, and on the virtues of urban life, technology, and the machine. They were variations of the view of the socialist future described by Lenin in State and Revolution (itself an adaptation of Marx’s utopia to Russian conditions). In such a future a system of rational harmony would replace the conflict of egos; there would be communal sharing of resources in work and life, and technology would triumph over nature. The machine was perceived by writers, artists, and ideologists as the creator of modernity and happiness, the instrument of the victory of social justice over greed and hunger. Celebration of the magic of the machine reached its heights in what Stites calls “the Soviet madness of Taylorism,” the time-and-motion theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor which had led to an efficiency craze in the US a few years earlier.

Some small communes set up by idealists in the early 1920s to live the communist ideal were in fact “Taylorist.” They strove to regulate scientifically every aspect of life through strict timetables that permitted no private time or space. Stites points out that these experiments in living were intended to get rid of passivity, sloth, and indiscipline, which were the source of much of the traditional misery of Russian life. He takes an equally favorable view of similar experiments in writing: the technological utopias of popular science fiction of the 1920s. But he mentions only obliquely that one prerevolutionary dystopia, by an obscure author, had already opposed to this optimism a nightmare vision of societies of conformity and repression founded on a cult of machine technology.

Among the most prominent of the cultist writers of the Twenties was Aleksei Gastev, who also ran an experimental laboratory of human robotry until 1938, Gastev usually is given no more than a footnote in any history of Soviet literature, but Stites believes that he represents a convergence common in the Twenties, between the revolutionary pragmatism of the Bolsheviks and the utopianism of the Russian artistic avant-garde. The Futurist and Constructivist movements identified with the Bolshevik revolution, seeing it as a continuation of their own revolution in literature and painting. Although much influenced by European modernist currents, they were specifically Russian in their conceptions of social conscience and even Leninist in the political discourse in which they framed their ideas; they saw art as ancillary to industry in the task of creating the new socialist society.

The fervor of the Constructivist and other allied artistic movements was initially welcomed by the state; for the first time in modern history artists and writers were invited to help fashion a new society in alliance with the reigning political power. New art schools were established, staffed by avant-garde artists, and theories and manifestoes proliferated: the Left Front, formed by the Futurists, including Mayakovsky and the artist Rodchenko, declared its intention to “reexamine the theory and practice of Left art, to free it from individualist distortions, and develop its communist aspects.” Constructivism, or “production art,” which grew out of the experiments of the painter Vladimir Tatlin, declared “war” on “pure art” as a form of escapism for which there was no place in a socialist society, rejecting easel painting in favor of the technical mastery of the properties of “real materials in real space.”

Taking to the streets, the squares, and the countryside, artists and writers set out to satisfy the “social demand” of the revolutionary epoch by designing agitational posters, composing revolutionary poetry and slogans, decorating cities for the festivals that celebrated the new order, Gifted artists such as Lyubov Popova strove to reach the masses by constructing sets and scenery for the theater, and they applied their ideas in textiles, porcelain, and dress design. Attempting to embody his own ideal of the “artist-engineer,” Tatlin turned to the design of workers’ clothes, a woodfueled stove, and plans for the Tower of the Third International, an information and community center twice the height of the Empire State Building and capable of being rotated. Avant-garde literature, art, architecture, music, dance, theater, and film of the Twenties were all suffused with technological fantasy, exalting functionality, speed, and efficiency. The theater director Meyerhold developed a theory of organized movement, “biomechanics,” as a means of creating the new “high-velocity man.”

Unfortunately, though much exciting art and design emerged from those years, idealism was not sufficient to turn these artists into engineers. Like the glider on which he worked for many years, Tatlin’s tower was no more than a potent symbol of his faith in a future in which human creativity and machine technology would form one harmonious whole.

Clearly, though, because of their visionary energy and self-appointed role as propagandists, Russian avant-garde artists helped to stimulate and guide the utopian imagination of the mass of Soviet society; but the images, ideas, and personalities of their leading representatives are given only the briefest of mentions in Stites’s book. While he remarks that the Russian avant-garde has been treated extensively by scholars in recent years, he omits to note that most of that treatment has reached conclusions on the relationship between political power and the artistic avant-garde sharply at variance with the blandly harmonious picture he presents of a “rich interaction between…life and art, one imitating the other and each reshaping both.”

In fact, as the book acknowledges elsewhere the early Bolsheviks were sometimes downright hostile to artistic experiment which they saw as irrelevant to the urgent task of raising the level of literacy and social consciousness; but this, according to Stites, was understandable: “No one should blame revolutionary leaders for not succumbing to all the rosy appeals of utopia as they faced the gruelling and exacting tasks of state-building.” In the resulting sunny picture of the 1920s, the Bolshevik leadership, while more “hesitant and tentative” than the intelligentsia in its attitude to utopian experimentation, is united with them in pursuit of the “dream of human liberty and the pathos of renewing mankind.”

The view that the political culture of the Twenties was, in its alleged openness and tolerance, qualitatively different from what followed is no longer widely supported by Western historians; and Stites would not have been able to state it so unequivocally had he been a little more specific about the careers of some of the writers and artists he mentions in his book. Mayakovsky, leader of the Futurists, is called “the irrepressible bard of the Russian Revolution”: there is no reference to his suicide in 1930, the outcome of pressures that began over a decade before with the discovery that his vision of the renewal of mankind differed fundamentally from that of the Bolsheviks.


To most of the Russian avant-garde, 1917 was a part of a universal revolution of the spirit against the “old world” of fixed and hallowed forms, closed and prejudiced minds. The Russian word byt (variously translated as convention, the daily grind, the established pattern of life) became in Mayakovsky’s poetry the symbol for the bourgeois values that must be liquidated to make place for the new world. Through their innovation in language and visual imagery the Russian modernists sought to transform perception and thereby create a new type of human being and a new social environment. This process of destruction and creation had no predetermined path or final goal; these artists and writers saw the revolutions in art and politics as a voyage into the unknown and infinite sphere of human creative potential. For all their fascination with futurology, utopia for them was not a final destination, but (to quote a contemporary utopian philosopher) “an endless process—an endless, proliferating realisation of Freedom.”3

The Bolsheviks had a contrary view: for them social and economic transformation would be the cause, not the effect, of a revolution in consciousness. Lenin had little to say about the nature of the new Soviet person who would emerge, he believed, only in the distant future; but we can deduce from his writings that the dominant characteristic of such a person would be not dynamic creativity, but conformity to a set and final pattern of social existence, historically predetermined and legitimated by science and reason. Stalin’s bureaucratic centralism was not a betrayal of Leninist idealism but could be described instead as the set of practices that ultimately proved to be best suited to Lenin’s theory.

The fate of experimental artists and writers under such a system began to be decided in 1920, when Lenin signed a resolution authorizing the establishment of the Soviet successor to the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as an institution for “the training of artists for the benefit of the national economy.” The members of the avant-garde who were eager to serve that goal did not secure for themselves the Party’s favor for very long. They were soon challenged by a number of organizations of writers and artists, calling themselves “proletarian,” who exalted the new collective man and his tasks in artistic forms that were modeled on the realism of the past and were thought to be easily accessible to the newly literate. Few of these writers and artists are known today in the West. They formed the powerful Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) and, with the increasing support of the Party, attacked the avant-garde for “bourgeois” individualism and decadent modernism.

Mayakovsky, the most flamboyant and vociferous of the modernists, came increasingly to suspect that technological progress and spiritual revolution were two different, and not necessarily connected, things. His play The Bedbug, written in 1928, is a satire of a future Soviet society built on machine technology. But there was no way out for him, as is clear from his contempt for the irrational, unreconstructed human being of his own day who, in the play, survives into the twenty-first century in a frozen state.

Mayakovsky’s fate provides a very different perspective on the faith in the fusion of man and machine, of the artist and the collective, that is often seen as the main source of creative inspiration in the Russia of the 1920s. This faith led Mayakovsky to exalt a collective society in whose future perfection he had little belief, and whose conformist mediocrity in the present he despised. As Trotsky commented in a perceptive essay, the real hero of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary epics is himself: even the “hundred and fifty million” (the title of one of his poems) assume the personality of the poet. Increasingly hounded by RAPP for not fulfilling the “social demand”—his own definition of the primary function of a writer—he finally capitulated by joining it. Two months later he shot himself; his suicide note contained the line, “Love’s boat has smashed against convention.”

As Trotsky put it, Mayakovsky’s poetry flowed enthusiastically into the Revolution, but did not merge with it. None of the other major artists and writers of the avant-garde achieved such a fusion; but many lived in hopes of it, repudiating their own gifts in theory if not always in practice. Without conscious irony, Lyubov Popova cites as an inspirational example for the revolutionary artist Tolstoy’s “brilliant discrediting” of art after his religious conversion. If, as was held in radical circles, every living organism is governed by the principle of expediency, “then why the hell should the most…uncertain of all subjective judgments—the notorious aesthetic judgment—be able to serve as a criterion?”

Of the three major avant-garde movements that flowed into the Revolution only one refused on principle to merge with it. This was Suprematism, which both as a Russian and a European movement was at least as important as Constructivism and Futurism, producing painters of the quality of Malevich and El Lissitsky (whose works represent a combination of Suprematist and Constructivist ideas). Kandinsky was also closely associated with the movement before his emigration in 1922. Radical and visionary, it had a pervasive influence on the design and architecture of the Twenties. (Inexplicably, it is not mentioned in Stites’s book.)

Suprematism was founded by Kazimir Malevich around 1913. The first systematic school of abstract painting in modern art, it attempted, through the geometric simplification of forms, to create self-referential harmonies devoid of associative meaning. There was a mystical element in Malevich’s painting that he describes as a “sensation of infinity.” Like the other modernists, he sought to create a new language that would enable mankind to discover “things still outside of cognition,” allowing art for the first time in history not merely to represent the existing world, but to take part in the construction of a new one. His weightless primary forms float in a space that is not determined by the laws of gravity, expressing what he described as mankind’s yearning “to be free of the globe of the earth.” In 1920 he published a pamphlet on the possibility of interplanetary flight, and of mastery of the cosmos through satellites and space stations.

In Vitebsk, Leningrad, and Moscow he taught in the art schools founded after the Revolution to work out a theoretical approach to art in a socialist society. There he began to investigate the possibilities for a Suprematist architecture in a series of idealized sketches, while his followers applied his ideas in the design of a variety of objects including teapots. But unlike the Constructivists he emphasized the spiritual, as opposed to the utilitarian, function of art, insisting that if the artist saw himself as a craftsman fulfilling a social demand, he would cease to create the ideal forms from which new design emerged.

This led to a break with Tatlin and his Constructivist followers in 1921 on the question of the social function of art. This event has been seen as being of historic significance for Russian art. It was historic in another sense too, as the first open confrontation in the new state between utopia as the “ever proliferating realization of freedom” and the systems of control erected by utopia in power.

Malevich argued his case at length in an article published in 1928. There should be a place both for Constructivism and Suprematism in Soviet culture; but their goals should not be confused. Utilitarian functions were historically relative; the value of artistic form was constant and invariable:

The influence of economic, political, religious, utilitarian phenomena on art is the disease of art…. Our contemporaries must understand that life will not be the content of art, but rather that art must become the content of life, since only thus can life be beautiful…. Not one engineer, military leader, economist or politician has ever managed to achieve in his own field a constant, beautiful, forming element such as that achieved by the artist. [my italics]

Malevich was notorious for the impenetrability of his theoretical writing; but this defense of the independence of art could not have been more clearly put. In the historical circumstances in which he wrote, its unambiguousness represents an act of great courage. His polemic with Tatlin had drawn on him the wrath of the “proletarian” and realist artists and writers; in 1926 the institute he directed was accused of “counterrevolutionary propaganda” in the Soviet press; it was closed shortly afterward. In 1929, he had his last public exhibition; the catalog stressed the alienation of his art from current ideology. In much of his work in the late Twenties he returned to figurative art; but this was no concession to the current “social demand” for inspirational icons to mobilize the masses. In his “peasant series,” painted at the time of the death and deportation of millions of kulaks, figures with featureless faces stand with chilling monumentality against a landscape composed of stark strips of primary colors.

Malevich’s vision had none of the other-worldliness of traditional aesthetic idealism. He believed that the proper understanding of art as an end in itself would lead not to philosophical or religious escapism but to a revolutionary transformation of human societies far beyond what politics alone was capable of doing. He insisted on the global significance of the change to non-objectivity in art. It had reversed a process of thousands of years in which art had been tied to the representation of visible reality. In their rejection of representation, “Constructivism, Futurism and Suprematism have established an immediate link with the world,” freeing the imagination from its historical clutter, and opening the way for a renewal of life through artistic form. In 1916 he declared: “Objects have vanished like smoke.” A new artistic culture was emerging in which the principle of creation as an end in itself would lead to domination over nature.

The modernist vision of the relation of art to society is summed up in a phrase from Malevich’s manifesto of 1919, New Systems in Art: “Art must grow on the stem of the organism, must give it form.” In seeking to serve rather than to shape the aspirations of a historical class and state, Malevich believed that the Russian avant-garde had turned its back on the most significant discovery in the history of art. His ideal of a dynamic world where art has transformed human perception, freeing it from subservience to authority and routine, is far more abstract and unattainable than the machine utopias that many other modernists settled for. And yet, as he observed with satisfaction, both before and after 1917, the guardians of the status quo saw his dream as a serious threat. In 1915 he ironically records the horror of the Russian artistic establishment when faced by his famous Black Square:

In my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of the objective world, I fled to the form of the square…. The critics moaned and with them the public. “Everything we have loved we have lost;…before us stands a black square on a white ground.”

This was a parody of the following outraged reaction to the Black Square by the artist Alexander Benois, who had led the critical attack on Suprematism:

Black Square on a White Back-ground is not just a joke, not a simple challenge, not a small chance episode. It is an act of self-affirmation of the principle of vile desolation. In its pride, arrogance and desecration of all that is loving and tender, it flaunts its desire to lead everything to destruction.

In the eyes of the modernists during the years before the Revolution, Benois was a man of the past. They were mistaken. In the 1920s, despite the protests of the “proletarian” writers and the avant-garde, the Party gave encouragement to many “fellow-travelers” (as Trotsky labeled them), artists and writers in the prerevolutionary realist tradition, who sympathized in general with the aims of the Communist leaders, who in turn saw their style as a model for an art and literature that could be harnessed to propaganda tasks. Benois was one of several such artists popular in the Twenties.

But Malevich’s art was useless as an instrument of propaganda; worse still, its effect on the imagination could not be predicted, channeled, or contained. Malevich’s painting, described by the critic Nikolai Punin as “a rocket sent by the human spirit into the sphere of non-existence,” is an eternal protest against the entropy of utopia in power. To those artists who yearned to be workers in the idealized universal factory of the “machine utopia,” he retorted: “Is it not my brain which is the true factory, from which the new, iron-transformed world runs, and from which there flows the life which we call invention?”

The social dreaming of the Russian 1920s was thus not the euphoric harmony that has been claimed. There were many other dissident voices whose utopia of freedom could not be reconciled with utopia in power. One of these was the poet Osip Mandelstam. He greeted the Revolution as a cosmic event; but, unlike Mayakovsky’s bardic oratory, his poetry of the 1920s expresses the silences of those whose voices (as he writes in his famous poem against Stalin) could not be heard more than ten paces away. It is rich in veiled allusions to the Revolution’s brutality and corruption, and his fears for the survival of poetry’s “sacred, senseless word in the Soviet night.” He died in a transit concentration camp in 1938, but (as his widow notes in her memoirs) Soviet journals, with remarkable unanimity, refused to print his poetry as early as 1922.4 The poems in praise of Stalin which he wrote in exile in the mid-1930s have been seen as a last hopeless attempt to find an authentic voice for the poet as prophet of the national destiny; but his was the kind of vision which, as Joseph Brodsky has put it, “casts doubt on more than a concrete political system: it questions the entire existential order.”5


It was indeed Stalin who declared allout “war on the dreamers” after 1928; but the ostracism and petty persecution of many of them started much earlier, as the zealots in the Party and in writers’ and artists’ unions began to identify those who would never conform. Sometimes such people became rebels against their will. The painter Pavel Filonov tried very hard to turn himself into a “proletarian” artist, but could not suppress his powerful vision of human alienation in the claustrophobic chaos of the modern city. An exhibition of his paintings was not permitted to open in 1929; but he had begun to be persecuted in the mid-Twenties, when his intricate and hypnotic canvases were denounced for their “bourgeois pessimism” by the dominant “realist” school.

Only one of the dissident voices who discerned the shape of things to come appears in Stites’s book, in a reference to Evgenii Zamyatin’s famous futurological satire We. Its monstrous United State, whose citizens are known as Numbers, is represented as a satire on the general tendency of political power to misuse technology. But Zamyatin (who held views close to Malevich’s on the power of artistic innovation to transform perception) devoted much of his writing during the Twenties to an analysis of what he saw as the disease of the Soviet system in particular: fear of the power of the heretical word. Insisting that the purpose of art was not to reflect life, but to organize and build new forms of it, he deplored the eagerness of Soviet artists to take on the functions of journalists and propagandists. One could not imagine Tolstoy writing about progress in the question of sanitation.

The revolution needs writers who do not fear the whip, who disturb rather than reassure.” Zamyatin perceived that the intelligentsia of the Twenties was not collaborating with the state in building a dream, but colluding with it in creating a myth of unanimity that could end in nightmare. Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing much later, had no doubt of that generation’s moral responsibility for what followed:

There are now many people who would like to bring back the twenties and recreate the self-imposed unity of those days. Survivors from those times do their best to persuade the younger generation that this was an age in which everything—science, literature, the theatre—flourished as never before, and that if everything had continued to develop on the lines then laid down, we should by now have attained the height of perfection….

In other words, they deny responsibility for what happened later. But how can they? It was, after all, these people of the twenties who demolished the old values and invented the formulas which even now come in so handy to justify the unprecedented experiment undertaken by our young State: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Every new killing was excused on the grounds that there would be no more violence, and that no sacrifice was too great for it.

Nobody noticed that the end had begun to justify the means, and then, as always, gradually been lost sight of. It was the people of the twenties who first began to make a neat distinction between the sheep and the goats, between “us” and “them,” between upholders of the new and those still mindful of the basic rules that governed human relationships in the past…in reality it was the twenties in which all the foundations were laid for our future: the casuistical dialectic, the dismissal of older values, the longing for unanimity and self-abasement.6

Nadezhda Mandelstam believed that the myth about the 1920s would be shattered once the facts were known; but the appeal of myth can be stronger than rational proof.

It is possible to contrast the spirit of the experimentation of the Twenties, carried on in an atmosphere of coexistence, with Stalinism, which abhorred experimentation and tolerated no rivals. But Stalin exploited the utopian enthusiasm of the time to launch his programs of industrialization and collectivization, and huge numbers of Russians willingly cooperated in creating the cult of the leader. The question of the collusion of utopia with power deserves to be explored in any future cultural history of the 1920s.

Many utopians of the Twenties tolerated rivals only because they did not have the power to eliminate them. This was the case with Proletkult, a movement founded to create a new proletarian culture through the intensive training of working-class writers in literary “studios.” While it produced some of the most interesting cultural experiments of the age, its most militant members also fought to exclude the nonproletarian intelligentsia (whose experiments tended to be of a higher artistic quality) from cultural life. During the late Twenties the movement’s successors tried to enlist the Party’s authority in enforcing their demand for control over Soviet literature—a nasty case of the kind of collusion which Nadezhda Mandelstam had in mind.

Another case of utopian inventiveness which was less innocent than it seemed is “Godbuilding.” Created before the Revolution by Gorky and Lunacharsky, it deified the collective force of the proletariat as a way of inspiring a religious sense of community. Though condemned by Lenin as a form of philosophical idealism, Godbuilding became (thanks to Lunacharsky’s position as commissar of enlightenment) an ingredient in the rituals of Communist festivals. Stites sees this movement as the expression of a strong subconscious bond between intelligentsia and working class—“a common utopian spirit of hope and humanism”—but he notes that these festivals soon lost their spontaneity and became instruments of political manipulation. This is not surprising: there was nothing spontaneous about Godbuilding, which was specifically concocted as a manipulative myth by Bolshevik intellectuals in the wake of the failed revolution of 1905. Dismayed at mass desertions from the Party, they hit on the idea of inspiring enthusiasm for the cause by inventing (in Lunacharsky’s words) “an infinite higher force…on which [the individual] can place his hopes.”

It would be hard for a student of the culture of the Russian 1920s not to see ironies of collision and collusion at every step. The science-fiction writer Gastev is a case in point. A genuine idealist, he found favor with Stalin for his ideas of social engineering, while himself endorsing the Stakhanovite movement as a logical outcome of his system. The dream came to an end in 1938, when he disappeared into a camp. He is now best remembered for having provoked Zamyatin’s We, one of the greatest of modern dystopias.

According to the mythological version of the 1920s, the system that destroyed such people was fundamentally hostile to their ideals. In reality, it derived both its claim to legitimacy and the justification for its violence from a belief that the revolutionary leaders of the Twenties, with the willing collaboration of huge numbers of the intelligentsia, had sought unremittingly to inculcate in their society: that the goal of progress was to establish a single, correct (because wholly rational) system of social existence, and that total identification with the system’s collective goals would give individual existence its meaning and purpose.

Nadezhda Mandelstam writes that the need to belong, not to be isolated from the main current of history, was the dominant psychological cause of the moral capitulation of writers and artists to the principle that might equals right. Indeed the conflict between the creative imagination and the desire to serve narrowly defined political goals is crucial to an understanding of the Russian art and literature of the Twenties; but only in discussing the gruesome inventions designed to replace the festive rituals of capitalist societies does Stites note that spontaneity and humor were crushed by “the need to moralize, self-congratulate, teach, speechify, punish and organize.”

The picture of the intelligentsia of the Twenties that he represents is an extraordinarily attractive one of a creative dissonance. Every aspect of the new society became a subject of passionate debate, from architecture to morality and dress. Among the major responses to the last problem were “to dress up, to dress down, to dress equally, or not to dress at all” (the proponents of the last option believing that the only egalitarian apparel was the human skin itself—a point which they made in street demonstrations in 1922). But the other side of the picture is missing from the book: the unceasing pressure for conformism, the desire to establish once and for all the right way to build, think, behave, and dress. As the Twenties progressed, these debates were resolved by an implicit consensus among the police (who removed the nudists from the streets), Bolshevik moralists, and the radical intelligentsia, rejecting all forms of dress and behavior that smacked of “bourgeois individualism” or “hooliganism” in favor of neatness and discipline. The colorful feminism preached by Alexandra Kollontai was a short-lived phenomenon: full sexual liberation being an impediment to the task of socialist construction. In the ending of experimentation which marks the prelude to Stalinism, it is difficult to separate the elements of pressure from above and voluntary conformism from below.

Stites claims that Russian utopians en masse believed that mankind was inhibited only by bad institutions from expressing its natural goodness in a state of brotherhood; while stalin’s system held that man is wicked, lazy, and stupid, and must be controlled by coercion.

A closer consideration of the record suggests that the difference between the two views corresponds to a difference between utopias in the mind and utopias in power. It may be true that the utopian propensity is “the mechanism whereby mankind protects its most sacred values”; but Stites’s argument would have been more balanced had he been less reluctant to acknowledge that utopian thinking has also been the source of some of mankind’s most horrible crimes. He finds it depressing that our self-consciously brutal age tends to scorn ideals of perfection, universal justice, harmony, and peace. Even liberals, he asserts, fear that people will still be attracted by sweeping visions of perfection and try to bring them about by the violent creation of totalitarian states.

But this seems to me a healthy fear, one that should not be too easily laid to rest by “warmhearted visions of a lovely land…graced by justice and prosperity.” He believes that the skepticism of Western commentators about such visions is motivated mainly by attachment to privilege and fear of the unknown, but he should not discount another motive: the view that rationalist utopias of the type he describes embody a concept of freedom irreconcilable with the ideals of classical liberalism.


The importance of this distinction between “two concepts of liberty” and their vastly differing social implications, was stressed in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay of that name.7 Berlin’s argument helps to introduce some much-needed clarity into the discussion of whether any of the utopias conceived in the 1920s might be a genuinely humanist alternative to the “utopia in power” whose demise is currently under way.

Berlin outlined the tortuous path by which the Enlightenment’s vision of freedom as rational self-direction—the historical root of liberal individualism—became the ideological justification of totalitarian despotism. In attempting to free people from subordination to divine powers, rationalist metaphysics in turn made reason quasidivine as the “true” eternal core of human nature. The authority of reason was identified with freedom, on the grounds that in conforming to rational necessity the individual was obeying the laws of his own nature. This had the effect (as in Kantian ethics) of dividing the personality into two parts. Freedom was seen as self-mastery, the bringing of the “lower” part of the psyche, the passions and desires, into line with the “higher,” rational self. According to the socialized version of this ethic (the basis of all rationalist visions of the Golden Age), reason being universal, all valid human values and goals must be ultimately compatible, fitting into a single, harmonious pattern. If all people were sufficiently rational, social conflict would cease. From this premise it is only one step to the argument that in the present imperfect world it may be the duty of the more enlightened to force the less enlightened to be free, by coercing their lower, animal natures into patterns of action consistent with the demands of their own higher, rational selves.

Berlin argues that the belief in a single solution to all social problems has no basis in empirical experience, which suggests that conflict is an inalienable feature of the human condition. But it seems that the desire for wholeness and unity is just as fundamental. And he sees this metaphysical need as the source of the unacknowledged tension in much contemporary liberalism between a commitment to pluralism and diversity for its own sake (based on the belief that people should be permitted to pursue as many ends as possible with minimal interference, and with no assessment of their value except insofar as they frustrate the needs of others for self-fulfillment), and the belief that societies are moving toward one correct way of life, when all their members will acknowledge the primacy of reason over the passions, and will freely choose conformity to widely shared norms over chaotic individualism. But Berlin argues that those who recommend, for whatever reason, that individual liberty be sacrificed to some more desirable goal, such as fraternity or justice, should not deceive themselves into believing that they are thereby defending liberty in some much deeper sense. To say that in some all-reconciling synthesis, duty is self-interest, the authoritarian state enhances freedom, or benign despotism promotes humanism, “is to throw a metaphysical blanket over self-deceit or hypocrisy.”

Berlin believes that many liberals, with the best of intentions, have blinded themselves to irreconcilable differences between their own deeply held values of plurality and tolerance, and the values of collectivist democracies whose sense of purpose they admire. In the current reassessment of the Russian past, a number of thinkers seem to be profiting from such a metaphysical cover-up. One of the most notable is Alexander Bogdanov, the subject of Zenovia Sochor’s study.

Bogdanov, a philosopher and economist who was trained as a medical doctor, and was the author of two utopian novels about collectivist society on Mars, was Lenin’s main intellectual rival in the Bolshevik party. His philosophical ideas (which led to his expulsion from the Party in 1910) became the theoretical inspiration of Proletkult. His activities in this organization after the revolution and the linking of his name with dissident groups aroused Lenin’s hostility, and he turned increasingly to medical research. He died in 1928, as the result of an experimental blood transfusion he performed on himself. Like another Bolshevik dissident, Nikolai Bukharin, Bogdanov has been rescued from oblivion by the recent interest in the different and more desirable paths that Russia might have taken to socialism. Zenovia Sochor seeks to demonstrate that his ideas represented such a path.

Bogdanov had an impressive record of independent thinking. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1904 because, unlike more orthodox Marxists, Lenin emphasized the role of human will in making history; but he opposed Lenin’s view of the Party as a vanguard interpreting Marxism for the masses. He was one of the first to predict that a “new class” would appear in the Soviet Union, arguing that the capitalist “fetishes” denounced by Marx would survive into socialist society, and would produce new exploitative relationships, unless the economic transformation of society were accompanied by a revolution in human consciousness. His philosophy, “empiriomonism,” rejected all universal laws and eternal truths, together with all self-appointed interpreters of such truths. He believed that truth corresponded to the experience of the most progressive class—the proletariat—in its revolutionary struggle. He attempted to sketch out an ambitious “organizational science,” that would draw on new developments in technology and would replace all hierarchical relationships in the productive process by cooperation, thereby eliminating the fragmentation of knowledge. In the new “proletarian culture,” the insights of the sciences and the arts would be systematized into one coherent body of knowledge.

Sochor presents Bogdanov’s ideas as a “grassroots” challenge to authoritarianism and the rule of dogma. But she admits that there is a curious disjunction between, on the one hand, his protest against coercive norms and, on the other, his theories about proletarian culture, where individual deviations from the “collective consciousness” would not be tolerated. Still, she believes that Bogdanov’s ideal of cooperation represented a clear alternative to the despotic path chosen by Lenin and Stalin and that the difference would have been even clearer if he had managed to rid himself of the vestiges of authoritarianism that ran counter to most of his thinking.

A reading of Bogdanov’s work, however, leads to a different conclusion: only by renouncing his democratic leanings could Bogdanov have been wholly true to his basic ideas. It is not surprising that the “Godbuilders” Gorky and Lunacharsky were among his enthusiastic fans; his philosophy was based on an extreme version of the rationalist idealization of man that is the soul of Marxist utopia. What principally distinguished him from other Marxist ideologues of the time was the mystical fervor with which he expressed his longing for transcendence and for a new age when the “illusion of the independent ego” would give way to the reality of the omnipotent collective. Knowledge and being would then form a seamless whole, and mankind would achieve its goal: “all-understanding” and “all-mastery.” He believed that with a little persuasion from him and other sympathetic intellectuals the proletariat was on the verge of fashioning the new, undivided consciousness whose ten commandments, as set out by him, included the precepts that it should recognize no coercive standards, worship no authorities, yet wholly identify with the collective in “mind, will, and feelings.” He saw no reason why the originality and initiative that he demanded of proletarian art should conflict with this collectivism; when it did, he attributed this to the remnants of bourgeois individualism persisting in the psyche. He defended the instincts of the proletariat against the Party’s attempts to control them, but it was he who defined what those instincts were.

It was Bogdanov, not Lenin, who demanded, some years before the Revolution, that the Bolshevik party should have a single line in philosophy—his own. During the NEP period, Proletkult’s millenarian impatience led it to accuse the Party of not being authoritarian enough and to object to the tolerance of “fellow-travelers” in cultural life, on the grounds that the arts were primary instruments in the ideological battle to create a collective psyche. As Proletkult proclaimed in 1920: “Art can organize the feelings in exactly the same way as propaganda organizes thought.”

The enthusiastic support of Proletkult’s successors for Stalin’s class war would seem to indicate a natural symbiosis between its collectivism and the Party’s authoritarianism. What puzzles Sochor is how Bogdanov could reconcile his humanistic vision of social harmony with his “rather chilling” indictment of deviant groups.

She is troubled, it seems clear, because she identifies Bogdanov’s ideal of harmony roughly with the liberal goal of mutual tolerance. That she can do so is evidence of the ambiguity in contemporary liberalism noted by Berlin: an unresolved contradiction between the defense of pluralism and the attraction of some liberals to a rationalist utopia in which all ends will coincide.

There seem few empirical grounds for Bogdanov’s belief that the human psyche was undergoing a revolutionary transformation in the direction of “collectivism” in the early years of this century; the Bolsheviks, most historians now agree, owed their success in 1917 less to proletarian solidarity than to their skill in exploiting the selfish interests of separate groups. Yet Sochor takes seriously Bogdanov’s claim that his vision coincided with the decline of the “bourgeois” mentality in favor of “comradely cooperation” and “universalism” and could therefore not be seen as coercive. She claims there is a fundamental difference between the Stalinist conception of partiinost (the view that adherence to the Party line established the validity of beliefs and actions) and Bogdanov’s collectivism, which she interprets (with some reservations) as a consensus of free spirits, a “willingness to explore and tolerate diversity.”

Yet at other points she seems to recognize her own contradictions. She suggests that the very notion that there is one best way to act contains an “authoritarian implication.” Unfortunately she does not keep this suggestion in mind when she stresses the differences between Stalin’s control of culture for the purpose of consolidating power, and Proletkult, whose conception of self-transformation was designed to enhance human dignity rather than submissiveness. Such distinctions prove nothing, except that Bogdanov was less of a realist than Stalin and a nicer man. Some of his disciples, who were not nice men, took his ideas to their logical conclusion, and joined the ranks of Stalin’s executioners.

Sochor’s defense of Bogdanov serves to illustrate Isaiah Berlin’s claim that contemporary liberals are insufficiently aware of the conflict between the urge for transcendence and the liberal values of pluralism and tolerance. She seems to interpret the current mood in Eastern Europe—weariness with a controlled society, the desire for democratic discussion, for humanist values—as a demand for such pluralism, And yet, as an answer to those who still have hopes of “socialism with a human face,” she proposes the ideas of Bogdanov, whose own face was resolutely turned away from the empirical world of diverse and conflicting purposes, and toward the abstract unity that he saw as the only true reality—the omnipotent collective.

Isaiah Berlin reminds us that if there is “enough manipulation with the definition of man,” then “freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.” Bogdanov and most of the Russian utopians of the 1920s were, intentionally or otherwise, engaged in such a game of manipulation. The admiration of Sochor and Stites for the spurious “collective consciousness” which was perhaps the most imaginative invention of that period may reflect a more general insecurity among liberals about the moral validity of classical liberal individualism. In 1974, when Solzhenitsyn, newly arrived in the West, lectured Western liberals on their moral bankruptcy and on the need for a cohesive moral society the respectful liberals in the audience were rarely willing to attempt a counterblast.

The situation has now changed dramatically: the events in Eastern Europe show that the traditional vision of utopia as a convergence toward a single truth, whether religious or rational, does not correspond to the needs of modern societies. In their search for a new political language in which conflict and pluralism can be expressed as ineradicable elements of the human condition, many Russian intellectuals are now turning to the West’s traditions of liberal thought, not to criticize it, but to learn from it. There is certainly a risk that Western liberal academics will, out of selfish materialism, be scornful of Russian utopian traditions. But the more real danger is that, with no direct experience of the effects on the liberties to which they are accustomed, they will continue to preach the attractions of “new paths” that are essentially more of the same thing.

Stites sees an inspiring example in Lev Kopelev, an early Communist and one of Stalin’s victims who, while expressing bitter disappointment in the ways the communist vision “degenerated in some men into the desire to serve as executioners,” reaffirms his faith in the ideals themselves. But many other Russians will want to reexamine those ideals. Under the conditions of glasnost, the utopian inquiry broken off at the end of the Twenties is beginning to be resumed; and Soviet intellectuals will have to rely heavily on sources such as Stites’s book, with its richly detailed reference to materials not easily available in Russia and the West.

But in the common effort to reconstruct the Russian national memory, Western scholars are offering not only facts, but interpretations, and in the present state of ideological confusion in the Soviet Union, this places a greater responsibility on them than many are used to. Some of our perspectives, if not as partisan as official Soviet versions, are based on assumptions that need to be revised in the light of the recent revolutions in Eastern Europe. Now that some of the losers of 1917, or at least their spiritual descendants, may be due for a second chance, we should reflect on whether our attachment to them owes more to the heart than to the head, and take a cooler look at the concept of freedom underpinning the ideal of a golden age. With the failure of the greatest utopian experiment in history, we are at a turning point when a problem raised by Berdyaev in 1924 seems a particularly suitable subject for reflection:

Utopias have turned out to be much more realizable than seemed possible before. Now we are faced with another tormenting question: how to avoid their being realized in full.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (Summit Books, 1988), p. 9.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1985.

  3. 3

    Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. xvi.

  4. 4

    Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, translated by Max Hayward (Macmillan, 1976), p. 138.

  5. 5

    Introduction to Osip Mandelstam, 50 Poems, Bernard Meares, trans. (Braziller, 1977), p. 15.

  6. 6

    Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, pp. 167–168.

  7. 7

    Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 118–172.