‘Lenin on Culture’ by Clara Zetkin from Reminiscences of Lenin International Publishers, New York. 1934.

‘Lenin on Culture’ by Clara Zetkin from Reminiscences of Lenin International Publishers, New York. 1934.

My first visit to Lenin’s family strengthened the impression I had received at the Party conference, and which in frequent conversations with him since then, has been deepened. It is true that Lenin lived in the Kremlin, the former tsarist fortress, and that one had to pass many guards before reaching him — a regulation justified by the counter-revolutionary attempts on the leaders of the revolution which were still being made at that time.

Lenin’s lavish bedroom in his Kremlin apartment.

Lenin also received visitors, when it was necessary, in the State apartment. But his private dwelling was of the utmost simplicity and unpretentiousness. I have been in more than one worker’s home furnished much more richly than that of the “all-powerful Muscovite dictator.” I found Lenin’s wife and sister at supper, which I was immediately and heartily asked to share. It was a simple meal, as the hard times demanded: tea, black bread, butter, cheese. Later the sister tried to find something “sweet” for the “guest of honor” and discovered a small jar of preserves. It was well known that the peasants provided “their Ilyitch” with gifts of white flour, bacon, eggs, fruit, etc.; but it was also well known that nothing remained in Lenin’s household. Everything found its way to the hospitals and children’s homes; Lenin’s family held strictly to the principle of not living better than the others, that is, than the working masses.

Lenin and Krupskaya’s Kremlin kitchen.

I had not seen Comrade Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, since the International Socialist Women’s Conference at Berne in March, 1915. Her kind face with its warm, friendly eyes, bore ineradicable signs of the malignant disease which was eating her away. But apart from that, she, too, had remained the same, the embodiment of sincerity and modesty, of an almost Puritan simplicity. With her hair smoothly combed back and tied in an inartistic knot at the back, in her ill-fitting dress, one could have taken her for a flurried housewife whose only worry is to save time, to gain time. The “first lady of the Great Russian Empire” — according to bourgeois ideas and phraseology — is undoubtedly the first in willing forgetfulness of self, in sacrifices for the cause of the toilers and the oppressed. The closest community of ideas and work in life bound her to Lenin. Impossible to speak of him, without thinking of her. She was “Lenin’s right hand,” his first and best secretary, his most convinced comrade in thought, the most experienced exponent and agent of his views, as untiring in gaining friends and adherents for the master of genius with strength and wisdom, as in carrying on propaganda among the working class. Apart from that she had her own personal sphere of activity to which she devoted herself with her whole soul: the system of popular education and instruction.

Krupskaya and Zetkin in 1927.

It would be ridiculous, insulting to suppose that Comrade Krupskaya was in the Kremlin as “deputy for Lenin.” She worked and worried with him, for him, as she had done her whole life, even when exile and the bitterest persecution separated them. Her profoundly motherly nature made Lenin’s dwelling a “home” in the finest sense of the word, and in this she was lovingly supported by his sister. A home not in the sense of the German Philistines, but in the spiritual atmosphere with which it was filled and which was the result of the relationships uniting the living and moving human beings there. It was clear that in those relationships everything was determined by sincerity, by truth, understanding and nobility. Although at that time I was not well acquainted with Comrade Krupskaya personally, in her “kingdom” and under her friendly care I immediately felt at home. When Lenin came, and, somewhat later, a large cat appeared, gladly welcomed by the family, and sprang on the shoulder of the “terrorist leader,” finally settling itself comfortably on his lap, I could truly have wept to be at home or with Rosa Luxemburg and her cat “Mimi,” a historic personality among her friends.

Lenin found us three women discussing art and questions of education and instruction. I expressed my enthusiastic admiration of the titanic cultural work of the Bolsheviks, at the energy and activity of creative forces, which were opening up new channels for art and education. But I did not conceal my impression that there was a great deal that was uncertain, unclear, hesitating and experimental in evidence, and together with the passionate desire for a new content, new forms, new ways of cultural life there were many artificial, cultural fashions after the western model. Lenin immediately entered with great liveliness into the discussion.

“The awakening, the activity of forces which will create a new art and culture in Soviet Russia,” he said, “is good, very good. The stormy rate of this development is understandable and useful. We must and shall make up for what has been neglected for centuries. The chaotic ferment, the feverish search for new solutions and new watchwords, the ‘Hosanna’ for certain artistic and spiritual tendencies to-day, the ‘crucify them’ to-morrow! — all that is unavoidable.

Zetkin with book on Lenin.

The revolution is liberating all the forces which have been held back, and is driving them up from the depths to the surface. Let us take an example. Think of the pressure exercised on the development of our painting, sculpture and architecture by the fashions and moods of the tsarist court, as well as by the taste, the fancies of the aristocrats and bourgeoisie. In a society based on private property the artist produces goods for the market, he needs buyers. Our revolution has lifted the pressure of this most prosaic state of affairs from the artists. It has made the Soviet State their protector and patron. Every artist, and everybody who wishes to, can claim the right to create freely according to his ideal, whether it turn out good or not. And so you have the ferment, the experiment, the chaos.

But of course we are Communists. We must not put our hands in our pockets and let chaos ferment as it pleases. We must consciously try to guide this development, to form and determine its results. In that we are still lacking, greatly lacking. It seems to me that we too, have our Dr. Karlstadt. We are much too much ‘Iconoclasts: We must retain the beautiful, take it as an example, hold on to it, even though it is ‘old.’ Why turn away from real beauty, and discard it for good and all as a starting point for further development, just because it is ‘old’? Why worship the new as the god to be obeyed, just because it is ‘the new’? That is nonsense, sheer nonsense. There is a great deal of conventional art hypocrisy in it, too, and respect for the art fashions of the West. Of course, unconscious! We are good revolutionaries, but we feel obliged to point out that we stand at the ‘height of contemporary culture.’ I have the courage to show myself a ‘barbarian: I cannot value the works of expressionism, futurism, cubism, and other isms as the highest expressions of artistic genius. I don’t understand them. They give me no pleasure.”

I could not but admit that I, too, lacked the faculty of understanding that, to an enthusiastic soul, the artistic form of a nose should be a triangle, and that the revolutionary pressure of facts should change the human body into a formless sack placed on two stilts and with two five-pronged forks. Lenin laughed heartily. “Yes, dear Clara, we two are old. We must be satisfied with remaining young for a little longer in the revolution. We don’t understand the new art any more, we just limp behind it.”

Lenin office.

“But,” Lenin continued, “our opinion on art is not important. Nor is it important what art gives to a few hundreds or even thousands of a population as great as ours. Art belongs to the people. It must have its deepest roots in the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must be rooted in and grow with their feelings, thoughts and desires. It must arouse and develop the artist in them. Are we to give cake and sugar to a minority when the mass of workers and peasants still lack black bread? I mean that, not, as you might think, only in the literal sense of the word, but also figuratively. We must keep the workers and peasants always before our eyes. We must learn to reckon and to manage for them. Even in the sphere of art and culture.

“So that art may come to the people, and the people to art, we must first of all raise the general level of education and culture. And how is our country in that respect? You are amazed at the tremendous cultural work we have accomplished since the seizure of power. Without being boastful we can say that we have done much in this respect, very much. We have not only cut off heads, as the Mensheviks and their Kautskys in all countries accuse us of doing, we have also enlightened heads. Many heads. But ‘many’ only in comparison with the past and the sins of the ruling classes and cliques of those times. We are confronted with the gigantic needs of the workers and peasants for education and culture, needs awakened and stimulated by us.

“knowledge will break the chains of slavery” Soviet Poster 1920,

Not only in Petrograd and Moscow, in the industrial centers, but outside them, in the villages. And we are a poor nation, a mendicant nation, whether we like it or not, the majority of the old people remain culturally the victims, the disinherited. Of course we are carrying on a vigorous campaign against illiteracy.

We are setting up libraries and ‘reading huts’ in the small towns and villages. We are organizing educational courses of the most varied nature. We arrange good theatrical productions and concerts, we send ‘educational tableaux’ and ‘traveling exhibitions’ over the country. But I repeat, what is all that to the many millions who lack the most elementary knowledge, the most primitive culture! While in Moscow to-day ten thousand — and perhaps to-morrow another ten thousand — are charmed by brilliant theatrical performances, millions are crying out to learn the art of spelling, of writing their names, of counting, are crying for culture, are anxious to learn, for they are beginning to understand that the universe is ruled by natural laws, and not by the ‘Heavenly Father’ and his witches and wizards.”

“Don’t complain so bitterly of the illiteracy, Comrade Lenin,” I interjected. “To a certain extent it really helped forward the revolution. It prevented the mind of the workers and peasants from being stopped up and corrupted with bourgeois ideas and conceptions. Your propaganda and agitation is falling on virgin soil. It is easier to sow and to reap where you have not first of all to uproot a whole forest.”

“Yes, that is true,” Lenin replied. “But only within certain limits, or, more correctly, for a certain period of our struggle. Illiteracy was compatible with the struggle for the seizure of power, with the necessity to destroy the old state apparatus. But do we destroy merely for destruction’s sake? We destroy in order to build better. Illiteracy is incompatible with the tasks of construction. As Marx said, it must be the task of the worker himself, and, I will add, of the peasant, to set himself free. Our Soviet society makes that possible. Thanks to it thousands of the working population, in the most varied Soviets and Soviet bodies, are now learning to work constructively. They are men and women ‘in the prime of life’ as they used to say in your circles. That means that most of them grew up under the old regime, that is, without education or culture. And now they are striving after them passionately. We are doing our very utmost to draw new men and women into Soviet work and in this way to instruct them practically and theoretically. The need for administrative and constructive forces cannot be disguised. We are compelled to employ bureaucrats of the old style, and we are getting a future bureaucracy. I hate it heartily. Not the individual bureaucrat, he may be a capable rascal. But I hate the system. It paralyzes and corrupts from above and below. And the most important weapon in overcoming and uprooting bureaucracy is the widest possible popular education and instruction.

“And what are our prospects for the future? We have established splendid institutions and taken really good steps to enable the proletarian and peasant youths to learn, to study, to gain culture. but here again the tormenting question arises: What is that among so many? Still worse! We have far too few kindergartens, children’s homes and elementary schools. Millions of children are growing up without instruction, without education. They are growing up in the ignorance and lack of culture of their fathers and grandfathers. How much talent will be wasted, how many aspirations crushed! That is a cruel crime against the happiness of the growing generation and a robbery of the wealth of the Soviet state which is to develop into a Communist society. It is a grave danger for the future.”

In Lenin’s voice, usually calm, there was a growl of suppressed indignation. How deeply this matter must affect him, must obsess him, I thought, for him to make a speech to us three. Somebody — I cannot recollect who — made some remarks pleading “extenuating circumstances” for many of the characteristics present in art and cultural life, explaining them by the situation at the time. Lenin replied:

“I know! Many people are honestly convinced that the difficulties and dangers of the moment can be overcome by ‘bread and cheese.’ Bread — certainly! Circuses — all right! But we must not forget that the circus is not a great, true art, but a more or less pretty entertainment. Do not let us forget that our workers and peasants are no Roman mob. They are not maintained by the state, they maintain the state by their work. They ‘made’ the revolution and defended their work with unexampled sacrifices, with streams of blood. Our workers and peasants truly deserve more than circuses. They have the right to true, great art. So, before everything else, wide popular education and instruction. They are the cultural soil — assuming the bread assured — on which a truly new, great art will grow up, a Communist art, arranging its forms in accordance with its content. Our ‘intellectuals’ are faced with stupendous and most worthy tasks. To understand and fulfill those tasks would be a tribute to the proletarian revolution for opening wide to them, too, the door that leads to freedom, away from the wretched plight of their old conditions of life, characterized so incomparably in the ‘Communist Manifesto’.”

That night — it had grown late — we spoke of many things. But everything else has faded from my memory except Lenin’s remarks on art, culture, popular education and instruction. As, in the cool night, I walked to my home, I thought how sincerely, how warmly he loved the working people. And there are people who think this man a cold intellectual machine, a rigid fanatic, recognizing human beings only in their “historical categories,” counting them and playing with them, unfeelingly, as though they were skittles.

Reminiscences of Lenin by Clara Zetkin. International Publishers, New York. 1934.

Written by Clara Zetkin between Lenin’s death in January, 1924 and the following January and published in the US for the first time by International Publishers in 1934. The online text of the book is linked here.

Contents: Foreword, A Party Meeting, Lenin on Culture, The Polish War, The “German Question”, The Fourth World Congress, Women Marriage and Sex. 66 pages.

PDF of original pamphlet: http://lib-lespaul.library.mun.ca/PDFs/radical/ReminiscencesofLenin.pdf

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