Progress Rooted in Past Art

"Peasants Dancing" Goncharova (1911)

“Peasants Dancing” Goncharova (1911)

The end of the nineteenth century ushered in new movements in Russian poetry, art, dance, and music, which continued to grow throughout the early twentieth century. The movement sought to unify all forms of art and promoted collaboration amongst artists. Companies such as the Ballets Russes merged artists of all disciplines, from painters to musicians, in their shows. As this new wave of Russian art progressed, the past was often rejected in favor of a belief in progress through the unification of the Russian people. Though the past was often rejected, once the Russian Socialist Revolution occurred, Bolshevik politicians such as Lenin and Lunacharskii failed to recognize the value of the past in the proletariat movement.

In The Proletariat and Art, Alexander Bogdanov stated the important role of art in the organization and unification of a strong proletariat. (( However, he argued that the proletariat should critique past art rather than reject it in its entirety. Instead, traditional Russian art provided an opportunity for the working class to find new interpretations of the artworks in order to learn from it through a proletarian lens. According to Bogdanov, if the proletariat could find new meaning in these pieces of art to advance their own agenda of unity and collectivization, then past artwork would work as a tool to strengthen the proletariat. Further, critiquing traditional artwork would allow the proletariat to understand the past and ensure that it would not repeat itself.

In contrast to Bogdanov’s work, Lenin and Lunacharskii completely rejected artworks and effigies of the Tsarist regime in The Monuments Policy. (( The document maintains that the removal of monuments built under the Tsarist regime was necessary because they were of no artistic value. The statement that these monuments had no artistic value ignored Boganov’s idea that they had a potential purpose in the overall progress of the proletariat.

Elements of the past were often present in Russian art, such is in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and in Goncharova’s Primitivist paintings. (( ; These artists believed in the progress of a unified Russian society, but they used symbols of the past in their works to demonstrate its role in inciting this progress. Though the music of “Rite of Spring” employs modern techniques, it is juxtaposed with traditional tribal dancing and costumes in the ballet. Further, Goncharova’s Primitivism was a modern art technique, but it focused on artistic styles and methods of the past. Lenin and the Bolsheviks failed to recognize the importance of the past in art and in a successful proletariat society as a whole.

Collectivization: No.

In Stalin’s drive for collectivization, we see the difference between “intent” and “reality”. Stalin put too much faith in workers, the proletariat, to successfully carry out collectivization. Although Stalin at first labeled collectivization as a political necessity that must be brought about gradually, the actual process was anything but gradual. What was meant to be a revolution built from the ground up incurred little more than destruction, and was wholly brought about from the top to the bottom, which is the exact opposite of Marxist ideology. There were no clear guidelines for the campaign and too much faith was put into the workers to bring about “consciousness” and change gradually into the countryside. There was no moderation in collectivization. Stalin’s response as read in “Dizzy with Success” blamed problems on local authorities, removing himself and his central government from blame for policy violations while, at the same time, providing no actual guide for how to proceed. The masses were not prepared for collectivization and the 25000ers were not prepared to bring it about.

Manifesto of the Communist Party

Of the many thought provoking and avant-garde ideas contained in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party, the core concept is explicitly stated in the opening line of the document where they wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” (126) This concept of class antagonisms is alluded to throughout several portions of the text. They believed that the proletariat would ultimately rise up and unify, dissolving all class distinctions to create a society conducted by a tier-less working class. In the process of developing their argument, Marx and Engels described the implications of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power. In this post I seek to expand on this notion.

Marx and Engels wrote that the bourgeoisie had, “replaced an exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions by exploitation open, unashamed, direct, and brutal.”(127) These statements were in reference to how the industrial revolution had created a system of exploitation in which the owners of capital, the bourgeoisie, exploited the wage-laborers, the proletariat, by enacting exploitative labor practices. They believed that the division of labor created a situation where, “He (the worker) becomes a mere appendage of the machine, of whom only the simplest, most monotonous operations are required,” ultimately creating a situation where “the price of a commodity, and therefore of labor, is equal to the cost of its production.”(131) While it is true that the division of labor drastically improves production, Marx and Engels objected to this practice because it marginalizes the worker to the extent where his labor becomes so simplified and monotonous that they lose all bargaining power and leverage against the firm. Adam Smith, in his work An Inquiry into the Nature and Case of the Wealth of Nations, emphatically promoted this division of labor. He did not recognize the inherent pitfalls that inevitably arise with this boost of productive efficiency. Marx and Engels countered this stance by claiming that the increases in production were nullified by the working class’ horrific existence.

Marx and Engels argued that such an exploitative system could only remain in place for a limited time because “the bourgeoisie has not only forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also produced the men who will wield these weapons – the modern workers, the PROLETARIATS.” (130) It appears as though these “weapons” which they allude to are products of the very industrial system that has subjugated the working class: new technologies. Marx and Engels wrote, “the union, which took centuries for the burghers of the Middle Ages with their wretched highways, to establish, the modern proletariat achieves by means of railways in a few years.” (133) Once the proletariat rises up against its oppressors it is capable of commandeering the new technologies that they created with their own labor, such as the railroads, to help disperse their new ideas and help the revolution materialize at a previously unfathomable pace.


In addition to railroads, what other newly developed technologies and structures created by constantly expanding markets would prove to be valuable for the dispersion of communist ideals?

Marx and the Communist Manifesto

Marx delved into the many details describing why the current system was failing and was always bound to fail. He repeated the themes of antagonism and struggle. The proletariat was always in a losing battle against the bourgeoisie. He pointed out that the free market had gotten out of hand. A candle lit by the bourgeoisie had turned into a wildfire, which burnt down cities. The destruction did not stop at borders or coasts. The  system caused barbaric nations to be dependent on civilized ones just as the workers were dependent on the ruling class. After listing the problems he claimed he had a solution: communism. He outlined his plan in ten points which included abolition of private property and centralization of industry and credit to the state among others.

As in any quality piece of writing, Marx addressed a few potential counterarguments. He stated that the proletariat already were stripped of everything to be abolished in his plan, so only the bourgeoisie would be hurt. He claimed that workers gained nothing. He forgot to consider however that in the current system, the proletariat did not even gain the most basic human needs of food, water, and shelter if they did not work. In communism, one could not become wealthy through laziness, but neither could he become wealthy though hard work. If he was lazy, he would at least not die of starvation, dehydration, or lack of shelter for the most part because all of that was provided by the state. Therefore, the easiest option with the highest benefits was to work very lightly. Human nature always causes people to seek the lowest cost highest benefit option.