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Brave New Worlds

Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy

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

1.

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.”

  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.

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