Transcribed here for the first time, a mid-1920s essay by one of the Revolution’s great literary artists looking at the response of Soviet literature to the new world emerging after the Civil War. Victor Serge’s insights are invaluable and will be of interest to all students of the Soviet Union’s first decade, of Russian literature, of Serge, and of the responses of art and artists to revolution. His prose, all his own. Special.
‘Between the Past and the Future’ by Victor Serge from Workers Monthly. Vol. 5. No. 16. February, 1927.
LITERATURE puts the problem of culture as a whole, on the very morrow of the revolution. And it is chiefly in virtue of its relation to culture in general that literature interests us.
With the end of the civil war (1921) the new Russian literature made a spurt forward that is truly marvelous. Yet no one is satisfied and it is apparent that a crisis has been reached. Self-criticism, sternness against self, painful consciousness of the immense difficulties in solving the problems of today.
But it is only by comparing it with foreign literature, by placing it in the entire atmosphere of post-war European culture, that Russian literature must be judged —and not by its own internal exigencies. Once this is done it appears astonishingly full of vigor, depth, variety, novelty. In no other country has there been any such springing up of new talents, of such works demanding attention. Here are the so-called “Fellow Travellers of the Revolution: Boris Pilnyak, Vsovoled Ivanov, Babel, Seyfoulina, Constantin Fedin, N. Nikitin, B. Kaverin, V. Chklovsky, Zostchenko, I. Tyniarov, Mayakovsky. There are the press writers and proletarian poets: S. Semenov, B. Lavreniev, Seratemovich, Fourmanov, Glakov, Bezymensky, Levevich, Sadoviev, Libedinsky, Yarov, Demian, Byedny, Sanikov. To these names we must add the newcomers who have attempted to renew their inspiration: Alexis Tolstoy, Ehrenberg, Veressaiev, Andre Sobel, Vladimir Lidin.
In spite of its great difficulties, I have been making an attempt to follow the development of literature in Europe and especially in France. I cannot help continually comparing the Russian writers and those of “over there.” I think of Paul Morand offering gentlemen what they want of life—an ample game of spiced pleasures. I think of M. Jean Giraudoux to whom Europe is a map, shaped and reshaped at will, by kind-hearted bourgeois. I think of Julien de Philippe Soupault whose life was stupidly consumed like a discarded cigarette. I think of M. Drieu la Rochelle, this wag of Mortherlant whose opinion is: “Everybody is right,” militarists above all. I think of the young conscious bourgeois, full of vanity, who would like to get up…
And then I think of the young Russian literature and it seems to me that it passes far beyond these men and their works. Its richness is—that it is alive. It is alive because it is the literature of a country “on the march,” a country where millions of men filled with the deepest, the most essential human interests, have undertaken the task of rebuilding the world. Among all the servants of the ruling class, the writer is the most enslaved. It is his natural mission to recreate his masters, to make them noble in their own eyes, to cultivate their state of consciousness, and to extend their influence to the subject classes who are deprived of their creative faculties. During the forward development of a ruling class, literature grows, it enlarges the sphere of its comprehension, renews itself thru contact with the masses, and achieves the summits with durable works. But the epochs of decline and reaction have the narrow and poor literature they deserve.
Our morrow of the revolution has many literatures, in the main opposed to each other, because many contrary currents are struggling within Soviet society— the revolution continues its endless molecular reorganization. But all are alive because they all represent social forces in action, men victorious, vanquished, adapted, uncertain—but all in the struggle, compelled to solve in their every-day conscious actions the problems that are solved by routine elsewhere.
WITH all its contradiction and variety, has the Russian literature any general characteristics? I will believe these characteristics are: interest in the great problems of social destiny, the conflict between the reactionary forces and consciousness, the rejection of pure psychology, i.e., of thought and sentiment detached from action, the rejection of pure esthetics, i.e., of art separated from life, the feeling for the life of the masses, the feeling for collective action, the feeling for the destruction of the old and the birth of a new world…
I find these traits in works of the most different character. Writers who came to the revolution the day after its victory but who are attached by all their past to the old society, Russian or European (Alexis Tolstoy, Elie Ehrenberg) sought for a new orientation. Alexis Tolstoy, an observer of the customs of the old regime, surrendered himself to a fancifully conceived novel of Utopian imagination (“Aelita”) and to the historic drama —& double escape from the present. Ehrenberg has also devoted himself to works of imagination built on fantastic logic. In appearance he seems to study the new customs but in reality he follows the old ones with his skeptical and realistic style (Jules Jerenito, The Trust for the Destruction of Europe). Its sarcastic despair has taken the whole universe as a stage and the end of all civilization as its theme. The subject is not new but the scope is broad, vast. A writer is formed by many years of incubation, observation, and assimilation. He can only create new personages when he lives with the masses, when he has penetrated their soul, when he knows how they think, speak, love, suffer…What types of new Russia can Alexis Tolstoy and Ehrenberg reveal to us in this period of struggle, pain and love? The Russian society they have known exists no longer: enlightened bourgeoisie, intellectuals, officers, court nobles, small bourgeoisie, uprooted cosmopolitans. They know nothing of the Putilov worker, of the young Communist girl student, of the party nucleus organizer…Ehrenberg studies in the present the types that belong to the past: the mediocre adventurer, the rugged petty bourgeois…
THE most talented young writers are not Communists. Boris Pilnyak is undoubtedly one of the most characteristic. He is the son of the revolution which he loves and admires. But after all, to him the revolution is a squall, a storm, a formidable outbreak of elementary forces. A rather anarchistic conception, common to both intellectuals and peasants. Seen from the outside by one who does not identify himself with it the revolution does indeed appear as a formidable outbreak. Pilnyak does not penetrate into the idea of class consciousness of the proletariat. What are social factors taking on the aspect of uncontrollable elements to the mind that does not discern the forces behind them. Just like the “wild winds” of the poet—which also behave according to strict laws. To the captain of a vessel the winds are not “wild forces” but rather regular forces, familiar and to be made good use of, to be mastered. This conception of the forces of the revolution is the product of nothing so much as of the prodigious ignorance of the intellectuals who, brought up as a part of the old culture, are strangers to proletarian thought, to revolutionary theory, to the Marxist conception of the future social order.
Constantin Fedin, in his beautifully written book, “Cities and Years,” wherein he too admires the revolution externally, is haunted by the ethical considerations of the old Russian intelligentsia (from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoi). It is a poignant work, but deceptive—a problem without a solution, an impasse. A man passes thru war and revolution as thru a wakeful dream. He is harmless, he sheds no blood, lie does not “crush a single flower.” The man is finally killed and properly so. The author refuses to let us know whether he approves of the killing of the man or if he sees in it the fulfillment of a natural law. The drama of revolution reduces itself to the crushing of a man—a weak man—by the uncontrollable elements…
In the books of Pilnyak and Fedin, the Communists are real—at times very beautiful, active, devoted, facing death courageously, but better still, knowing how to live, i.e., how to conquer, how to work. But they too are observers from the outside. Their soul remains closed. You see them pass, you hear them speak; you can never penetrate their inner life. But under their leather coats they are nevertheless men of flesh. To European authors the Oriental is likewise “impenetrable”—Brahman or coolie they depict with the same minute, intelligent, limited and narrow-minded observation.
THERE are authors who have studied the world of outlaws, bandits, bullies, adventure seekers—the world that is found in the lower depths of our big cities (Babel in his scamps of Odessa, Baverin in his “Repair,” “Vassili Andriev,” etc.). Russian literature has always manifested a tenderness for these “irregulars.” They are victims, rebels, vanquished, eccentrics, outcasts. Note that the five terms here are also justifiably applicable to many of our intellectuals. Between the former and the latter there exist a secret kinship attested to by such as Gorki. The Bohemian intellectuals understand the proletarians they find among these “irregulars” much better than they do the factory proletariat. Their success in the study of outlaws is in contrast to their inability to penetrate the inner life of the Communists and of the revolutionary workers in general. Is this not another manifestation of the same unconscious anarchism that Pilnyak shows in his conception of the revolution as a tempest?
THE old writer Veressaiev, whose “Notes of a Doctor” on the Russian-Japanese war were epochal, is the author of a novel properly entitled “In ‘the Impasse.” In it the position of the small bourgeoisie during the revolution is depicted—hesitating, discontented, scrupling, hostile to the whites—reactionaries but patriots—hostile to the reds—pitiless barbarous, human elements—hostile to the socialists but nearer to them than to the others…Aside from its literary value such a work is a social document; the aphorisms of Marx and Lenin on the petty bourgeoisie are often repeated—perpetual hesitation, incapability owing to their economic position of maintaining a political line, and driven to one side or the other. No other book shows the profound truth of the abstract Marxian theory.
Recently I read a novel by another gifted writer, M. Nikitin. It is a well-constructed novel, “The Flight,” mastering the new form, brief, epileptic, excluding psychological development even when it ‘becomes necessary to reveal a psychology, having one surprise after the other in store for the reader. The subject is: two officers of the old regime now occupying subordinate ‘posts in the Red Army, find themselves useless, tired, deprived of any aim in life, astray. One commits suicide; the other helps him and goes insane. This frightful book is the work of a young man of twenty-nine, formed during the revolution. He has written other stories expressing with a rare power some aspects of the civil war. This book is also a social document. While I was reading it I could not help thinking of Savinkov’s suicide. The flight! The old S. R. terrorist, the old revolutionist, the old accomplice of Kornilov, the old counter-revolutionary bandit who recited his pitiless mea culpa before the revolutionary tribunal of Moscow. He too took flight the next day—from the window of his prison cell. He was all bruised. He felt the chaos…
I thought of our poet Sorge Yessenin’s suicide last December. He sang the audacity of requests…the nights of outlaws…the cabarets of Moscow…his inexpressible suffering at finding himself in new Russia without toeing able to understand or to follow the revolution with the depths of his soul. I thought of Yessenin whom la Boheme had stolen from us and killed…Astray! Astray! I was still thinking of these dead when the papers announced—the suicide of Andre Sobol.
An atrociously logical end for the existence of an unadapted soul! A revolutionist and prisoner under the old regime, almost a counter-revolutionist at the beginning of November; then he rallied, a tormented idealistic conscience overcome with scruples; a brilliant talent, hypersensitive; overwhelmed with the sentiment of his impotence to break with the past. The past has killed this artist as it crushes an entire generation before our eyes.
LESS numerous but often excellent are the works that are largely impregnated with the new spirit, in line with the regenerative efforts of the revolution. They draw their inspiration from two sources.
Some draw their inspiration from the civil war—as the peasant masses saw it. Vsevoled Ivanov pictures the red partisans of Siberia in some very enjoyable stories (“The Partisans,” “The Blue Sand,” “The Shaded Train”). Lydia Seyfoulina is one of the popular authors of Russia. She is of Tartar origin, a peasant and a school teacher. She depicts the revolution in the village in a rural language mingled with the rich but simple style of Tolstoi. Her characters are true, living, firm in the Russian soil; you see them one and all. Thru their actions we can understand the awakening consciousness that guided them thru the revolution and we can see that order has, at last, triumphed over the elementary forces…The old red peasant Ataman Pegikh makes the sign of the cross as he falls under the blows of the whites and says: “Lord, God, receive the soul of ‘the Bolshevik Ataman.” Seyfoulina is very near to the Communists.
Other remarkable works find their inspiration in the revolutionary epic. The exaltation of the hero is justified by the recognition of the new forces of victory: the force of a conscious people fighting for its cause, the incomparable moral force of the revolutionists. Of the whole epoch our epic literature is the only true one because the apogee is born thru the accord of the poet with the individual, the masses, the laws of history— an accord crowned by victory. Among the works of this kind we must mention “Red Cavalry” toy Babel and the poems of Nikolai Tikhonev, one of the most gifted masters of the new Russian poetry. Babel and Tikhonev fought in the civil war—Babel in the Budieny cavalry and Tikhonev elsewhere.
Two groupings have exercised a marked influence on Russian literature during the past period: Serapion on the one hand and the Formal School on the other (B. Eiohenbaum, V. Chlovsky, I. Tynianov). The latter school claims that form is the decisive primitive factor in art. Altho it is fought toy Marxist criticism on account of its repudiation of the sociological method and its indifference in the field of ideas, this school is nevertheless given credit for its insistence on the study of the forms of language and on style, so necessary for all literary mastery.
ON the whole, the Russian intelligentsia of the post-revolutionary period is overwhelmed with the burden of its origin. This Intelligentsia is recruiting mostly from the petty bourgeoisie who sided with the enemy in October, 1917. Although its attachment to the new Russia is natural and profound, yet it has been fed on the past, a culture of the vanquished and the condemned. For our epoch this culture is the most insidious spiritual poison. Capitalism forms men in its image—its spirit penetrates the language, the style, the very way of reasoning—it makes the soul of man, especially of the artist. The artist is admitted in communion with generations of men of noble intelligence; he is accustomed to consider the culture of a minority of owners as the culture of humanity and to look upon its social laws as continuous natural laws. From his position among the privileged servants of bourgeois society the artist enjoys a specious freedom, he exercises his influence over the treasure of social Inheritance. As his mission, he has the elaboration of the ideal of the ruling classes, the justification of their existence—he is the most refined form of their consciousness. He fails to see his chains —he believes that he bears the torch forward. In reality he follows and serves but he suffers under the illusion that he is a guide. Yet his mandarin dignity permits revenue to accompany his honors.
On the morrow of the revolution culture—moral, social, family, customs, beliefs, ideology—appears to collapse and the victorious proletarians and peasants stand out as barbarous. Proletarian thought, destined to become the animator and initiator of a new culture, is still seen under the rude and austere forms of an intellectual discipline, a doctrine of struggle fortified by action. Such are the causes for the disorder that the recent literature reveals to us.
Russian literature is at the cross roads and is drawn apart by opposing tendencies: back to bourgeois democracy the call of the past and—forward and the future! Literature has much to give to Europe and to the world. It will develop with Soviet society; thru struggle and adaptation it will contribute to the formation of the future proletarian ideology.
Today it is often lacking—compared to the revolution. But it is much ahead of the Western standard—in its experience, its traditional humanism, the influence of the proletariat over it despite itself and despite its internal struggle.
The Workers Monthly began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Party publication. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and the Communist Party began publishing The Communist as its theoretical magazine. Editors included Earl Browder and Max Bedacht as the magazine continued the Liberator’s use of graphics and art.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/wm/1926/v5n16-feb-1927-1B-FT-80-WM.pdf