1998: MARTINET, TROTSKY AND PROLETARIAN CULTURE
Draft notes for an article on Marcel Martinet. It was never completed because the topic was handled in a far superior fashion by George Paizis in his book Marcel Martinet: Poet of the Revolution [Francis Boutle 2007].
PROLETARIAN CULTURE DEBATE
It sometimes seems that the question of ‘proletarian culture’ is the ultimate determinant of orthodox Trotskyism. Many who claim to be Trotskyists will cheerfully announce their disagreement with their mentor on the class nature of Russia or the Transitional Programme, but will refuse to entertain the thought that he might have been wrong on the question of the ‘proletcult’.
Yet Trotsky’s writings on culture were designed for a very specific conjuncture, and generally fall into the context of a polemic. There can be no doubt that Trotsky was widely read and had a passionate interest in cultural questions, but it is scarcely surprising that he never found the time to set out his cultural views in a systematic fashion.
Yet the question of proletarian culture is a highly complex one that cannot be resolved by mere formulae. A position that was appropriate in post‑1917 Russia was not necessarily apt for the very different cultural situation in Western Europe.
RUSSIA : BOGDANOV
Bogdanov, the guiding spirit of the Russian proletcult, had been in France in 1912 and had had some contact with revolutionary syndicalist circles, but it is not clear whether any direct influence can be established. In any case, the idea developed in quite independent fashion in the two countries.
Bogdanov had grandiose organisational ambitions for the proletcult apparatus, which he wished to place on a level with the Party and the trade unions. Nonetheless, his concept of ‘critique’ in relation to proletarian appropriation of existing culture is an important theoretical contribution.
RUSSIA : PROLETCULT AT BASE
The controversy about Bogdanov does not detract from the fact that the actual practice of proletcult groups involved much that was exciting and innovatory, as workers previously conditioned to believe that they were incapable of any cultural achievement began to write poetry and perform plays. The realities of the Russian situation were still relatively little known in France; the articles of Victor Serge in Clarté in the 1923‑24 period played a crucial role in making the Russian experience available in France.
RUSSIA : TROTSKY’S POSITION
Clearly proletarian culture could not mean the same thing in France as it did in Russia, and the criticisms which Trotsky directed at the Russian proletcultists were not necessarily relevant to France. Trotsky started from the fact that, in a situation of permanent revolution, the Russian proletariat was culturally backward, that it had to absorb the elementary achievements of bourgeois culture before it could begin to go beyond them.
But the debate about proletarain culutre was not a uniquely Russian phenomenon. A parallel debate began in France before 1914, with the work of Rictus, Nazzi and Charles Albert. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea was widely debated in both Stalinist and anti‑Stalinist circles.
Some clarification of the question may be obtained by examining the ideas and writings of Marcel Martinet, a French revolutionary who was a personal friend of Trotsky’s. Trotsky’s biographers have paid scant attention to Martinet ‑ both Deutscher and Broué refer to him simply as ‘the poet Marcel Martinet’. Martinet was indeed a talented poet ‑ but also a dramatist and novelist; an active militant ‑ revolutionary syndicalist, Communist and anti‑Stalinist; and the first literary editor of the Communist L’Humanité. Trotsky’s respect for Martinet may be judged by the warm tribute he paid to him in the special issue of Maurice Wullens’ journal Les Humbles devoted to Martinet in 1933.
Indeed, Martinet remains relatively little known, although some of his works have been republished in France in recent years. A group of his friends launched a society of the Friends of Marcel Martinet in the 1970s, and began to publish a regular bulletin devoted to his work, but only six issues appeared. The friends concerned were largely Martinet’s near contemporaries, and as they disappeared so too did the lobby to preserve Martinet’s memory. Nonetheless, Martinet’s work deserves to be remembered and studied.
Martinet made his literary and political debut in the years just before the outbreak of the First World War. He was associated with the group of revolutionary syndicalists, including Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte around the journal La Vie Ouvrière. In these circles there was a close link between literary and political activity ‑ Rosmer took his pseudonym from a play by Ibsen and in his early years wrote much theatre criticism.
Martinet’s notion of proletarian literature was rooted in the politics of revolutionary syndicalism. Syndicalism had many weaknesses, although it is too simple to argue, as many Trotskyists do, that syndicalism involves a simple denial of politics. Unless ‘politics’ is equated with parliamentarism, this is simply untrue. Certainly the syndicalists cannot be accused of neglecting the question of the state; they devoted enormous efforts to anti‑militarist work, and their work in this field bears comparison with that of socialists in any country prior to 1914.
But the overriding strength of syndicalism was its stress on proletarian self‑activity. Other currents in the socialist movement might have more formally correct positions on parliament, the trade unions, the state or the need for a revolutionary party, but, as became clear in the period from 1914 to 1921, unless such positions were animated by a central concern for working‑class self‑emancipation, they could easily serve as a cover for the worst varieties of opportunism.
[**The role of the revolutionary syndicalists in the creation of the PCF is worthy of some comment. The PCF was formed at the Congress of Tours in December 1920, when the majority of the SFIO voted to affiliate to the Third International. But in the preparatory moves that led to its formation, some of the syndicalists who had never been members of the SFIO played a key role, and some of them, notably Rosmer, enjoyed the confidence of Lenin and Trotsky far more than any of the SFIO leaders did; Rosmer played a key role in the early years of the Comintern and in the factional disputes within the PCF. Trotsky records that on one occasion Lenin expressed regret that the Comintern could not simply get rid of the existing leadership of the PCF and replace it with revolutionary syndicalists. Those who argue that the ‘unquestionable verdict of history’ is that revolutionary parties can be formed only from splits in mass working‑class parties should examine the origins of the PCF and the role of the revolutionary syndicalists; they will see that the picture is not quite so simple as they claim.]
PRECURSORS OF PROLETARIAN CULTURE
The circle was also greatly influenced by the ideas of Albert Thierry, in particular the notion of the ‘refus de parvenir’, that is, young intellectuals attracted to the syndicalist movement made a positive decision not to make a career for themselves within bourgeois institutions. A striking example of this is the case of the historian Maurice Dommanget, a protégé of Albert Mathiez and an authority on Babeuf and Blanqui. Dommanget could have risen through the University system to the heights of a Mathiez or a Georges Lefebvre, but he preferred to remain a schoolteacher and active trade unionist.] The concept was highly moralistic, but it also stressed that there must be a connection between a militant’s ideas and the way of life s/he adopted. And crucially, in terms of Martinet’s later concerns, it stressed that socialists could not simply work inside the educational and cultural apparatus of the existing state.
EFFORT LIBRE ARTICLE
In 1912 Martinet wrote an article for J‑R Bloch’s journal L’Effort Libre in which he discussed new trends in literature, and argued for the concept of a ‘proletarian literature’. In the article he spent some time considering the most appropriate term, and rejected the label of ‘socialist literature’ on the grounds that the term socialist suggested the SFIO, to whose parliamentarist practice Martinet and his syndicalist friends were strongly opposed.
Martinet took as a point of comparison writers of the previous generation, notably Zola, who enjoyed widespread popularity in the French working‑class movement for his depiction of working‑class struggle in Germinal. [** A passage from Zola’s La Débâcle was quoted in the celebrated Manuel du Soldat, a revolutionary syndicalist pamphlet widely circulated in the French Army as part of the syndicalist anti‑militarist agitation] While paying tribute to Zola’s achievement, Martinet argued that Zola was still a bourgeois artist describing the problems of the working class from the outside; what was now needed was an artistic practice that would envisage the situation of the working class from the inside.
The concept of ‘proletarian literature’, then, had roots in the West quite independently of developments in Russia.
MARTINET AND WAR
It is not clear how the argument would have developed in France if peace had continued; but the outbreak of war in 1914 threw the entire left into confusion. Only days before the commencement of hostilities thousands of Parisian workers had held massive anti‑war demonstrations, despite police attempts to ban them. But with the outbreak of war everything changed; as Alfred Rosmer wrote: ‘Once the war starts, everything is lost’. The leaders of the SFIO joined with their erstwhile opponents the leaders of the CGT to support the war effort.
The group around La Vie Ouvrière were among of the few to stand by their principles. A few days after the start of war Martinet left a note for Pierre Monatte, saying simply : ‘Has everyone else gone mad or have I?’ The supporters of La Vie Ouvrière began to meet regularly to try to salvage something from the situation. When Trotsky came to Paris a few months later he began to frequent their circle and it was thus that he first encountered Martinet.
The VO grouping were wholly opposed to the war, and supported Zimmerwald (though Rosmer rejected Lenin’s formulation of ‘revolutionary defeatism’). But they believed that revolutionaries had a duty to be with the class; Monatte and Rosmer both went into the army. Martinet, whose health was fragile throughout his life, was exempted on medical grounds.
At this time Martinet was a great admirer of Romain Rolland, whose Au‑dessus de la melee had been one of the first prominent literary voices to be raised against the war. In retrospect it is easy to see the weakness in Rolland ‑ a sentimental liberalism which in later life took him into the camp of Stalinism. But at the time any voice against the war was better than none.
POETRY AND NOVEL
Under the pressure of war, Martinet’s political and literary concerns came together, and he wrote a collection of poems that was to appear under the title Les Temps Maudits. These were published in Switzerland ‑ being banned in France ‑ but were also circulated widely among combatant troops. Poems and articles were often printed on specially thin paper so they could be included as part of what appeared to be an ordinary letter and sent to troops in the trenches.
Martinet’s verse does not have the direct experience of the trenches that we find in the English war poets; and in comparison with contemporary avant‑garde poets his language and versification is quite traditional. But Les Temps Maudits is none the less Martinet’s most impressive volume of verse [his other collections, largely of nature poetry, are much less powerful]. He combines a powerful sense of moral outrage with a sharp satirical capacity, and expresses his points with clear direct language.
His novel, La Maison à l’Abri, was essentially concerned with the experience of the war; not having been a combatant Martinet could not produce an account of trench life to compare with those of a Barbusse or a Remarque; instead he dealt with the subject obliquely, setting his story behind the lines, but none the less giving a vivid account of the impact of the war on a series of human lives.
A greater impact was made by his play, La Nuit. Although not performed in France, this achieved international recognition. It was translated into English by Eden and Cedar Paul, and in Russia it was staged by the celebrated director Meyerhold. Trotsky found time during the intense activity of the civil war and its aftermath not only to read it, but to devote a brief critical essay to it.
TROTSKY ON LA NUIT
Trotsky’s appreciation of La Nuit is of interest in understanding something of Trotsky’s own position on aesthetics. Trotsky is sometimes claimed to be advocating the complete separation of art from politics (and it is true that he makes certain formulations ‑ such as ‘art has its own laws….’ that suggest this). Certainly, in line with Engels’ remarks on Balzac [**However , Engels’ letter to Margaret Harkness should be viewed with some qualification; few of those who cite it have read Harkness’ novel A City Girl] and Lenin’s on Tolstoy, Trotsky does not believe that the value of a work of art can simply be reduced to the political correctness of its producer. But that does not mean that he is opposed to works of literature which take the proletarian revolution as their subject matter and attempt to see the world from the standpoint of the proletariat; his review of La Nuit makes it clear that this is not the case.
The subject of La Nuit is a revolution ‑ in many ways a situation analogous to that in Germany in 1918. The whole play is presented from a position of commitment to the revolution, but this does not mean that it is based on crude stereotypes; on the contrary, Martinet shows that it is weaknesses within the revolutionary camp that ultimately account for the defeat of the revolution.
MARTINET AND PCF
The period from 1917 to 1922 represented the peak of Martinet’s activity. He was from the very outset enthused by the Russian Revolution, and he worked towards the creation of the French Communist Party.
CAHIERS DU TRAVAIL
In 1921 Martinet, in collaboration with Hasfeld, launched the Cahiers du Travail, modelled on Péguy’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine. Though these lasted only six months, they included texts by Luxemburg and Rosmer as well as two eye‑witness reports from Russia by Victor Serge.
MARTINET AND L’HUMA
Martinet was again able to combine his political and cultural concerns when he took the position as the first literary editor of L’Humanité after the paper had passed into the hands of the newly formed Communist Party. Each Saturday the paper appeared with six pages instead of the usual four, and one page was devoted to a range of cultural topics. In this situation Martinet had to contend with a set of problems and relate to a range of competing alternatives.
First of all, there was the simple challenge of producing a revolutionary newspaper in a situation when revolutionary prospects in Europe still looked good, and when L’Humanité was able to reach a mass working‑class audience. Obviously cultural tasks could not have a high priority, nor could they be separated from the prime task of preparing for power. Yet the building of a workers’ paper that could agitate and educate was a central part of that task.
Trotsky’s criticism of L’Humanité in its early years are well‑known, and they reflect the political weaknesses of the PCF in general. But it also has to be said that L’Humanité in this period was not a bad paper, and that it had some talented and effective contributors, of whom Martinet was one.
THEORY AND PRACTICE
What did this mean in practice for the ‘cultural’ page of L’Humanité. Martinet published a large number of reviews, many written by himself, on a wide range of writers, past and present. He also contributed a series of articles (reissued in book form in 1935) outlining a theory of proletarian cultural organisation.
CULTURE AND POWER
Obviously in France, where the working class was at a higher educational and cultural level than that in Russia, and yet where it was still a long way from holding political power, the situation presented quite different challenges.
The Communist Party in France had been formed from the apparatus of the SFIO, complete with its parliamentarians and assorted dignitaries. The cultural tradition of the pre‑war social democracy was still strong. This tradition was essentially one of radical Republicanism, rooted in Voltairian anti‑clericalism, Freemasonry and the defence of Dreyfus, rather than in anything specifically proletarian. Such a tradition looked to prominent figures of the established literary scene, notably Anatole France, who had expressed some sympathy for Communism before he died, and whose death was greeted with fulsome obituaries in L’Humanité.
But the PCF also attracted some of the young intellectuals radicalised by the war, notably the Dadaists, who in 1924 were to transform themselves into the surrealist group. They argued for a totally new cultural practice breaking with everything in the old tradition; they greeted Anatole France’s death with a deliberately provocative statement.
Surrealism was an important cultural movement, which has had a pervasive influence on the art of the twentieth century. But the surrealists were unwilling or unable to relate to the cultural practice of the PCF, preferring to act as though they were an autonomous political group, even though its leading members on more than one occasion sought PCF membership. [**In overall terms the surrealist group can be characterised as ultra‑left; however, it did contribute at least two militants of standing to the Trotskyist movement (Benjamin Péret and Pierre Naville), as well as a distinguished fellow‑traveller (André Breton).]
For Martinet the party and its press had an educational role of enlightening the working class ‑ but always within the framework of the struggle for power.
And that meant organisational autonomy for the working class. The working class could not simply absorb the existing culture through the existing institutions, for those institutions, especially the educational system, were class institutions. The working class had to develop its own political organisation, and also its own cultural organisations. Martinet is sceptical of the role played by bourgeois intellectuals in the socialist movement (another prejudice, and not a wholly unhealthy one, inherited from the revolutionary syndicalist tradition. He looks critically at the experience of the SFIO and of the ‘Universités populaires’.
It was in the context of these alternatives that Martinet attempted to outline what he meant by ‘proletarian culture’. Contrary to the way the term is sometimes understood, Martinet by no means wanted to argue for a new culture which would scrap the cultural achievements of the past. On the contrary, Martinet believed that the working class were the inheritors of the whole history of human culture, and that they should take that inheritance into their own hands. In that sense, the revolutionary party had an educational role of bringing the acquisitions of past culture into the possession of the proletariat. But at the same time Martinet insisted that this was not a simple question of taking over an existing culture; for the working class to appropriate the culture of the past meant appropriating it on its own terms; it would have to rework that cultural heritage and transform it in terms of its own experience and its own preoccupations.
Special features were devoted to classic authors such as Pascal and Flaubert, who could scarcely be suspected of having radical, let alone socialist sympathies. On one occasion Martinet reviewed a book by a member of the extreme right Action Française, arguing that narrow political criteria could not be applied, and that the author’s work must be accepted on its merits despite his politics. The range of material covered is so broad that Martinet could more easily be accused of eclecticism than of a narrowly sectarian or philistine view.
But Martinet’s deep respect for the cultural heritage did not detract from the other component of his cultural project ‑ the encouragement of working‑class writers. The experience of the war and the subsequent upsurge of struggles had led many young workers to seek to put their experiences into literary form, to enter a domain previously reserved for the educated classes.
One of the young writers whom Martinet encouraged was Henry Poulaille. Poulaille wrote a series of stories, later collected in volume form under the title Âmes Neuves. These all dealt with children, and mainly reflected on themes such as poverty and the impact of war. While they were a little sentimental for some tastes, they none the less clearly marked an attempt to produce literature from the standpoint of working‑class experience.
Martinet thus encouraged a writer who was to become a prolific novelist and campaigner for proletarian culture. In a later reminiscence, Poulaille recalled how Martinet had sympathetically understood the problems of a young worker‑writer.
Unfortunately, Martinet’s period of influence was not to last long. By the end of 1922 his health, never strong, broke down under the enormous strain of the work he had been doing, and he had to retire from his post on L’Humanité. [His immediate successor, Maurice Parijanine, in many ways continued a similar policy]. He was never again able to resume an active political life, although he continued to write. Martinet thus avoided the disputes on L’Humanité in 1923, when Rosmer and others resigned their posts, and the purge of 1924, when Rosmer and Monatte were expelled. If he had still been in active politics, he would undoubtedly have gone the same way as his old comrades.
Until his death in 1944 Martinet was capable of only spasmodic political intervention. He took a clear anti‑Stalinist position, and politically was probably closest to the Révolution Prolétarienne grouping. During the 1930s he wrote more poetry and at least two political pamphlets.
One was a searching attack on French colonialism in Indochina, taking up an issue which neither the SFIO nor the PCF in the Popular Front period wanted to confront. The other was a pamphlet in defence of Victor Serge, imprisoned in the USSR. Here Martinet marked a clear break with his erstwhile hero Romain Rolland, who had by now capitulated to Stalinism and was refusing to defend Serge. Martinet wrote: ‘With Rolland and if necessary without Rolland and against Rolland.’ However, he also distanced himself from Trotskyism, explicitly rejecting a suggestion that if Serge were released he might become a leader of the Fourth International. The final occasion on which Martinet crossed Trotsky’s path was in 1939 at the founding of the FIARI (International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art). But the unity was fragile; disputes soon broke out between the surrealists and the proletcultists; only two issues of Clé appeared and the venture collapsed without trace. Martinet’s personal role does not seem to have been of any particular significance.
The brief flowering of a healthy concept of ‘proletarian culture’ could not survive the turmoil of the succeeding years. There was much discussion of the concept in subsequent years (for example the enquête in Monde) but with the subsiding of the revolutionary wave and the rise of Stalinism it no longer had the same meaning.
Far from being a Stalinist concept as is often alleged, ‘proletarian culture’ was the very antithesis of Stalinism; in Russia Stalin disbanded the proletarian culture organisations. When Stalinism picked up the term it was to turn it into its very opposite. Since the party was now, by self‑proclamation, identical with the class, ‘proletarian culture’ was culture that the party approved of ‑ no more and no less. The self‑activity of the working class was quite forgotten.
Something of the alternative tradition remained. Henry Poulaille, a fierce libertarian, had no truck with Stalinism, and maintained a series of journals and workers’ cultural circles throughout the thirties. It was a brave attempt to maintain a cultural practice, through lectures and a lending library, but of necessity it was divorced from all perspective of working‑class power, and thus could have no more than marginal significance.
Poulaille still has his admirers. This last summer, when I picked up a volume of Poulaille from a Paris bouquiniste, the stallholder expressed delight that I was reading Poulaille and insisted on giving me the address of the association of ‘Friends of Poulaille’.
TROTSKY AND PARIJANINE
Trotsky had been deeply involved in the struggles in the PCF in the early twenties, and had undoubtedly read Martinet’s page. Trotsky always stood by his position on proletarian culture, but he did qualify it slightly. In 1929 in Prinkipo he was visited by Martinet’s successor, Parijanine, who questioned him about the problem of proletarian culture. Trotsky maintained his basic position: the working class in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat could not develop a new culture; there would be a socialist culture but not a proletarian one. He cited Lenin: ‘If it’s proletarian, it’s not a culture, and if it’s a culture it’s not proletarian.’
But Trotsky did qualify his position somewhat. He conceded that any activity which involved workers learning to practice cultural skills which were denied them by capitalism was a positive move towards developing working‑class consciousness. Trotsky thus endorsed the positive value of much of what the Russian proletcult had actually done ‑ as distinct from the claims Bogdanov made for it ‑ and also of the kind of work Martinet had been doing.
It is in this context that Trotsky’s relation with surrealism should be seen. Trotsky was obviously anxious to win allies wherever he could, and his relation with Breton was clearly an attempt to win support from a writer with a significant international reputation who had made some courageous gestures against Stalinism. But contrary to the claims of some followers of surrealism, there does not seem to be any evidence that Trotsky actually regarded surrealism as being of particular artistic significance. Yet Trotsky certainly did not endorse the practice of such as Martinet and Poulaille either.]
We might sum up Trotsky’s revised position as being that there can be no proletarian culture, but that there can be a proletarian cultural practice.
CULTURE AND IDEOLOGY
The idea of a proletarian culture was a logical corollary of the notion of proletarian self‑emancipation. For if the working class were adjudged incapable of developing their own cultural practice, then their capacity to organise themselves and to win their own self‑emancipation must be called into question.
Martinet died in 1944. He deserves to be remembered, not because he was a major writer nor because he developed a coherent doctrine; neither was the case. But he posed some important questions and honestly strove to find the answers. The history of Marxist cultural practice is enhanced by his work.