Der Zuschauer

A Journal of Essays and Reportage on Drama, History, and Literature

Non-October Literature

with 4 comments

We, the Editors, reproduce various telegraphs received from Leon Trotsky in Ulan Blator beginning in the winter of 1940. We by no means stand by every idea or remark.

…Even a successful solution of the elementary problems of food, clothing, shelter, and even of literacy, would in no way signify a complete victory of the new historic principle, that is of socialism. Only a movement of scientific thought on a national scale and the development of a new art would signify that the historic seed had not only grown into a plant, but has even flowered. In this sense, the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.

The nightingale of poetry, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set. The day is the time for action, but at twilight feeling and reason come to take account of what has been accomplished.

Nonrevolutionary or non-October literature…is now in reality a past stage. At first, the writers placed themselves in active opposition to October, denying all recognition to everything connected with the Revolution, just as the teachers refused to teach the children of revolutionary Russia. The non-October character of literature, therefore, not only expressed the deep alienation that lay between the two worlds, but it became also a tool for active politics, the sabotage of the artist. This policy annihilated itself; the old literature is now not so much unwilling, as unable.

In 1918 and 1919, it was not uncommon to meet at the front a military division with calvary at the head, and wagons carrying actors, actresses, stage settings, and other stage properties in the rear. In general, the place of art is in the rear of the historic advance. Because of the rapid changes on our fronts, the wagons with actors and stage properties found themseves frequently in a difficult position, and did not know where to go. At times they fell into the hands of the Whites. No less difficult at present is the position of all art, caught by the violent change on the historic front.

The theater especially is in a difficult position for it absolutely does not know where to go and what to show. And it is most remarkable that the theater, which is perhaps the most conservative form of art, should have the most radical theorists. Everyone knows that the most revolutionary group in the Union of Soviet Republics is the class of drama critics.

I do not know whether the stage needs biomechanics at the present time, that is, whether there is a historic necessity for it. But I have no dobt–if I may speak my own point of view–that our theater is terribly in need of a new Realistic Revolutionary Repertory, and above all, of a Soviet comedy…We need simply a soviet comedy of manners, one of laughter and of indignation. I am using the terms out of the old literature texts on purpose, and I am not in the least afraid of being accused of going backwards. A new class, a new life, new vices, and new stupidity demand that they shall be released from silence, and when this will happen we will have a new dramatic art, for it is impossible to reproduce the new stupidity without new methods.

Please do not point to the dramatic censorship, because that is not true. Of course, if your comedy will try to say: “See what we have been brought to; let us go back to the nice old nobleman’s nest’–then, of course, the censorship will sit on your comedy, and do so with propriety. But if your comedy will say: “We are building a new life now, and yet how much piggishness, vulgarity, and knavery of the old and of the new are about us; let us make a clean sweep of them,” then, of course, the censorship will not interfere, and if it will interfere somehow it will do so foolishly, and all of us will fight such a censorship.

When, rare as it was, I had occasion to watch the stage, and politely hide my yawns so as not to offend anyone, I was strikingly impressed with the fact of how eagerly the audience caught every hint at present-day life, even the most insignificant. A very intersting manifestation of this can be seen in the operettas revived by the Moscow Art Theatre…It occured to me then that if we were not yet grown enough for comedy, we should at least, stage a revue!

Of course, no doubt, and it goes without saying, in the future the theater will emerge out of its four walls and will merge in the life of the masses, which will obey absolutely the rhythm of biomechanics, and so forth, and so forth. But this, after all, is “Futurism,” that is, music of a very distant future. But between the past on which the theatre feeds, and the very distant future, there is the present in which we live…One good Soviet comedy will awaken the theatre for a few years to come, and then perhaps we will have tragedy, which is truly considered the highest form of literature.

Culture feeds on the sap of economics, and a material surplus is necessary, so that culture my grow, develope, and become subtle. Our bourgeoisie laid its hand on literature, and did this very quickly at the time when it was growing rich. The proletariat will be able to prepare the formation of a new, that is, a socialist culture and literature, not by the laboratory method on the basis of our present day poverty, want, and illiteracy, but by large social, economic, and cultural means. Art needs comfort, even abundance. Furnaces have to be hotter, wheels have to move faster, looms have to turn more quickly, schools have to work better.

Editors’ Note: For those of you reading the Leon Trotsky telegraphic excerpts from his Literature and Revolution, and, surprised at the humanity and depth, might want to read in parrallel Roman Jakobson’s My Futurist Years, and, despite its title, Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, a work that speaks of dramaturgy brillantlly while addressing another topic, just as Sergei Eisenstein does in his Film Form and Film Sense.

When some Constitutional Democratic aesthete makes a long journey in a cattle car and then tells abut, muttering through his teech, how he, a most educated European, with the very best ot false teeth and the most exact knowledge of the technique of the Egyptian ballet, was reduced by the vulgar Revolution to the necessity of traveling with lousy bagmen, a feeling of physical disgust rises in your throat against the false teeth, aesthetics of the ballet, and against all this culture stolen from the shelves of Europe in general. A conviction begins to grow that the very least louse of the ragged bagman is more significant in the mechanism of history, that is more needed, than this thourghly cultivated and utterly futile egoist.

For further commentary on Trotsky in Ulan Blator, and Mongolian Cultural History, please see the page, Grabbe, Here, Also It is I, Ekaterina Degot.

Leon Trotsky
Vodka, the Church, and the Cinema
(July 1923)

First Published: Pravda, July 12, 1923.
Transcribed and HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

There are two big facts which have set a new stamp on working class life. The one is the advent of the eight-hour working day; the other, the prohibition of the sale of vodka. The liquidation of the vodka monopoly, for which the war was responsible, preceded the revolution. The war demanded such enormous means that czarism was able to renounce the drink revenue as a negligible quantity, a billion rubles more or less making no very great difference. The revolution inherited the liquidation of the vodka monopoly as a fact; it adopted the fact, but was actuated by considerations of principle. It was only with the conquest of power by the working class, which became the conscious creator of the new economic order, that the combating of alcoholism by the country, by education and prohibition, was able to receive its due historic significance. The circumstance that the “drunkards’” budget was abandoned during the imperialist war does not alter the fundamental fact that the abolition of the system by which the country encouraged people to drink is one of the iron assets of the revolution.

As regards the eight-hour working day, that was a direct conquest of the revolution. As a fact in itself, the eight-hour working day produced a radical change in the life of the worker, setting free two-thirds of the day from factory duties. This provides a foundation for a radical change of life for development and culture, social education, and so on, but a foundation only. The chief significance of the October Revolution consists in the fact that the economic betterment of every worker automatically raises the material well-being and culture of the working class as a whole.

“Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play,” says the old formula of the workers’ movement. In our circumstances, it assumes a new meaning. The more profitably the eight hours work is utilized, the better, more cleanly, and more hygienically can the eight hours sleep be arranged for, and the fuller and more cultured can the eight hours of leisure become.

The question of amusements in this connection becomes of greatly enhanced importance in regard to culture and education. The character of a child is revealed and formed in its play. The character of an adult is clearly manifested in his play and amusements. But in forming the character of a whole class, when this class is young and moves ahead, like the proletariat, amusements and play ought to occupy a prominent position. The great French utopian reformer, Fourier, repudiating Christian asceticism and the suppression of the natural instincts, constructed his phalansterie (the communes of the future) on the correct and rational utilization and combination of human instincts and passions. The idea is a profound one. The working class state is neither a spiritual order nor a monastery. We take people as they have been made by nature, and as they have been in part educated and in part distorted by the old order. We seek a point of support in this vital human material for the application of our party and revolutionary state lever. The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing, and laughter is the most legitimate desire of human nature. We are able, and indeed obliged, to give the satisfaction of this desire a higher artistic quality, at the same time making amusement a weapon of collective education, freed from the guardianship of the pedagogue and the tiresome habit of moralizing.

The most important weapon in this respect, a weapon excelling any other, is at present the cinema. This amazing spectacular innovation has cut into human life with a successful rapidity never experienced in the past. In the daily life of capitalist towns, the cinema has become just such an integral part of life as the bath, the beer-hall, the church, and other indispensable institutions, commendable and otherwise. The passion for the cinema is rooted in the desire for distraction, the desire to see something new and improbable, to laugh and to cry, not at your own, but at other people’s misfortunes. The cinema satisfies these demands in a very direct, visual, picturesque, and vital way, requiring nothing from the audience; it does not even require them to be literate. That is why the audience bears such a grateful love to the cinema, that inexhaustible fount of impressions and emotions. This provides a point, and not merely a point, but a huge square, for the application of our socialist educational energies.

The fact that we have so far, ie., in nearly six years, not taken possession of the cinema shows how slow and uneducated we are, not to say, frankly, stupid. This weapon, which cries out to be used, is the best instrument for propaganda, technical, educational, and industrial propaganda, propaganda against alcohol, propaganda for sanitation, political propaganda, any kind of propaganda you please, a propaganda which is accessible to everyone, which is attractive, which cuts into the memory and may be made a possible source of revenue.

In attracting and amusing, the cinema already rivals the beer-hall and the tavern. I do not know whether New York or Paris possesses at the present time more cinemas or taverns, or which of these enterprises yields more revenue. But it is manifest that, above everything, the cinema competes with the tavern in the matter of how the eight leisure hours are to be filled. Can we secure this incomparable weapon? Why not? The government of the czar, in a few years, established an intricate net of state barrooms. The business yielded a yearly revenue of almost a billion gold rubles. Why should not the government of the workers establish a net of state cinemas? This apparatus of amusement and education could more and more be made to become an integral part of national life. Used to combat alcoholism, it could at the same time be made into a revenue-yielding concern. Is it practicable? Why not? It is, of course, not easy. It would be, at any rate, more natural and more in keeping with the organizing energies and abilities of a workers’ state than, let us say, the attempt to restore the vodka monopoly.

The cinema competes not only with the tavern but also with the church. And this rivalry may become fatal for the church if we make up for the separation of the church from the socialist state by the fusion of the socialist state and the cinema.

Religiousness among the Russian working classes practically does not exist. It actually never existed. The Orthodox Church was a daily custom and a government institution. It never was successful in penetrating deeply into the consciousness of the masses, nor in blending its dogmas and canons with the inner emotions of the people The reason for this is the same – the uncultured condition of old Russia, including her church. Hence, when awakened for culture, the Russian worker easily throws off his purely external relation to the church, a relation which grew on him by habit. For the peasant, certainly, this becomes harder, not because the peasant has more profoundly and intimately entered into the church teaching – this has, of course, never been the case – but because the inertia and monotony of his life are closely bound up with the inertia and monotony of church practices.

The workers’ relation to the church (I am speaking of the nonparty mass worker) holds mostly by the thread of habit, the habit of women in particular. Icons still hang in the home because they are there. Icons decorate the walls; it would be bare without them; people would not be used to it. A worker will not trouble to buy new icons, but has not sufficient will to discard the old ones. In what way can the spring festival be celebrated if not by Easter cake? And Easter cake must be blessed by the priest, otherwise it will be so meaningless. As for church-going, the people do not go because they are religious; the church is brilliantly lighted, crowded with men and women in their best clothes, the singing is good – a range of social-aesthetic attractions not provided by the factory, the family, or the workaday street. There is no faith or practically none. At any rate, there is no respect for the clergy or belief in the magic force of ritual. But there is no active will to break it all. The elements of distraction, pleasure, and amusement play a large part in church rites. By theatrical methods the church works on the sight, the sense of smell (through incense), and through them on the imagination. Man’s desire for the theatrical, a desire to see and hear the unusual, the striking, a desire for a break in the ordinary monotony of life, is great and ineradicable; it persists from early childhood to advanced old age. In order to liberate the common masses from ritual and the ecclesiasticism acquired by habit, antireligious propaganda alone is not enough. Of course, it is necessary; but its direct practical influence is limited to a small minority of the more courageous in spirit. The bulk of the people are not affected by antireligious propaganda; but that is not because their spiritual relation to religion is so profound. On the contrary, there is no spiritual relation at all; there is only a formless, inert, mechanical relation, which has not passed through the consciousness; a relation like that of the street sight-seer, who on occasion does not object to joining in a procession or a pompous ceremony, or listening to singing, or waving his arms.

Meaningless ritual, which lies on the consciousness like an inert burden, cannot be destroyed by criticism alone; it can be supplanted by new forms of life, new amusements, new and more cultured theaters. Here again, thoughts go naturally to the most powerful – because it is the most democratic – instrument of the theater: the cinema. Having no need of a clergy in brocade, etc., the cinema unfolds on the white screen spectacular images of greater grip than are provided by the richest church, grown wise in the experience of a thousand years, or by mosque or synagogue. In church only one drama is performed, and always one and the same, year in, year out; while in the cinema next door you will be shown the Easters of heathen, Jew, and Christian, in their historic sequence, with their similarity of ritual. The cinema amuses, educates, strikes the imagination by images, and liberates you from the need of crossing the church door. The cinema is a great competitor not only of the tavern but also of the church. Here is an instrument which we must secure at all costs!

Written by herrdramaturg

June 22, 2008 at 10:32 am

4 Responses

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  1. Well, we aren’t sure current “research” is up to “mustard” on the where abouts of Trotsky’S cadavour, much less his immortal soul. Where is he now? uPON WHAT RADIO CRYSTAL IS HE LISTENING TO THE NATIONALIZATION OF united states banks?

    Gooney Birds

    October 14, 2008 at 3:24 pm

  2. Sarah Pallin can see Russia from her own home.

    Bald Eagles of Americas

    October 14, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  3. Are you unaturally bald or “naturally” bald and do you want to achieve “greatness?” Try Free Masonry in America.

    Bald Eagles of Americas

    October 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

  4. Hello, I often give head to men on Newbury Street because there is little else to do. Can you help me with this?

    Linda Barrett

    February 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm


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