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Living the Future The Left in Culture

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Living the Future



The Left in Culture


BRINGING  ART  TO  LIFE

Pre-1914  avant-gardes  were  nothing  if  not  international—a  “spray  of in- tellectuals  which  in  this  period  distributed  itself  across  the  cities  of  the globe,  as  emigrants,  leisured  visitors,  settlers  and  political  refugees  or through universities and laboratories.” The E´ cole de Paris seemed to have fewer  French  painters  than  “Spaniards  (Picasso,  Gris),  Italians  (Modi- gliani),  Russians  (Chagall,  Lipchitz,  Soutine),  Romanians  (Brancusi), Bul- garians (Pascin) and Dutchmen (Van Dongen).”2  London, Berlin, Paris, Vi- enna, St. Petersburg—all functioned as magnets. But if there was a regional nucleus  for  international  modernism  in  revolutionary  Europe,  it  was  the Berlin-Vienna circuit of the German-oriented central European intelligent- sia.

There is a paradox when we turn to 1918. In a time of national revo- lution,  when  the  Habsburg  Empire’s  multinational  framework  collapsed and Czechs, Hungarians and others celebrated ethnocultural achievement, a  vibrant  cosmopolitanism  flowered.  This  came  partly  from  a  bourgeois Jewish literary and academic intelligentsia, who identified with an enlight- ened  model  of  dominant  German  culture  and  valued  supranational  sup- ports in the anti-Semitic atmosphere after 1917–18. The international ex- cellence  of  the  German  universities  in  science,  philosophy,  and  social science also played a part. So did repression. It was no accident that Hun- garians rather than, say, Czechs distinguished this cosmopolitan scene, be- cause the Hungarian Soviet’s destruction sent an entire generation of liberal, radical,  and  Marxist  intellectuals  into  Austro-German  exile.  This  is  what changed  with  the  war:  artistic  radicalism  was  joined  by  an  international political  filiation,  inspired  by  the  Bolshevik  revolution  but  regrouping around the West’s main revolutionary hope, the German Communist Party

(KPD). During the Weimar Republic (1919–33), Berlin was modernism’s engine

room.  Radicals  from  smaller  countries—the  Low  Countries  and  Scandi- navia—came  naturally  into  its  orbit.  Two  major  countries  secluded from international modernist discourse—Britain by the complacencies of its con- servative  imperial  culture,  Italy  by  Fascism—found  it  vicariously,  as  in Christopher  Isherwood’s  writings  with  their  memorable portrait of Berlin in  its  last  pre-Nazi  phase.3   This  was  a  notable  shift  in  Europe’s  cultural center of gravity. It brought the temporary eclipse of Paris, till a fresh chain of events—Surrealism’s impact, Nazism’s coming to power in Germany, the French  and  Spanish  Popular  Fronts  (1934–37)—supervened.  If  Paris  was the  “capital  of  the  nineteenth  century,”  Berlin  promised  to be the capital of the twentieth, until Nazism brutally broke the spell.4

The  early  twentieth  century  was  crucial  for  the  modern  history of  the arts.  The  dramatic  political,  economic,  and  technological  changes  fired  a new sensibility, which saw itself as their specific expression. And in attack-


ing  the  rules  of  artistic  production  and  form, new avant-gardes were cer- tainly  assailing  social  convention—using  “art”  to  speak  about  “life.”  In Filippo  Tommaso  Marinetti’s  Futurist  Manifesto  of  1909,  hymning  the speed and dynamism of modern industrial life, the language of revolution and the language of the avant-garde seemed to coincide:

We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot

. . . the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution. . . . So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here we are! Here we are! Come on! Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums. . . . Take up your pickaxes, your axes and ham- mers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!5

Denouncing the past and celebrating aggression, movement, and revolt, Marinetti  hailed  machines  as  liberating  weapons  of  disorder,  embracing war  as  the  world’s  sole  redemption.  Before  1914,  this  appeal  to  violence and the crowd, the misogynist celebration of physical power, and the turn to  the  irrational  made  its  insurrectionary  language  the  opposite  of  pro- gressive;  by  1922,  the  Fascist  potentials  were  distressingly  real.  But  still, the target—the complacencies and rigidities of bourgeois civilization—was also the target of socialism. By 1916–17, the shocks of war and revolution were  sending  many  of the  avant-garde to  the Left. To  take the  most self- consciously  and  militantly  subversive  of  the  new  artistic  movements,  for example, if Dadaism was an assault on meaning, this was also the meaning legislated  by  the  given  principles  of  the  established  social  order;  and  the assault  was  also the  assault  on the bankruptcy  of  a  specifically bourgeois sensibility.6

DESTROYING  THE  OLD,  BUILDING  THE NEW:  CULTURAL  REVOLUTION  IN

RUSSIA? Culturally,  the  Russian  Revolution  produced  glorious  confusion.  The  Pe- trograd and Moscow masses cleared a path for cultural no less than polit- ical  experimentation.  The  masses  themselves,  as  much  as  the  Bolshevik Party, repudiated  the given culture—expropriating bourgeois, gentry, and aristocratic  property,  occupying  apartments,  manor  houses,  palaces  and museums,  redefining  public  and  private  space,  and  physically  destroying the  old  regime’s  symbols, from buildings and  paintings to  fancy furniture and books. The youthful avant-garde luxuriated in joyful destruction. For the  poet  Alexander  Blok,  the  revolution  was  “to  remake  everything.  To organize things so that everything should be new, so that our false, filthy, boring, hideous life should become a just, pure, merry, and beautiful life.”7


The  revolution’s  destructiveness,  which  for its enemies meant only the irrational  violence  of  the  “mob,”  cleared  an  imaginative  space  for  fresh thinking. The symbolic radicalism of the avant-garde’s assault on bourgeois civilization,  given  the  latter’s  descent  into  the  morass  of  the  First  World War,  shaped  the  Left’s  emerging  cultural  agenda.  If  by  1918  the  Italian Futurists had dispersed into Fascism, a Russian Futurist like Mayakovsky grasped  the  opportunities  of  the  Russian  Revolution  with  alacrity.  “The streets  are  our  brushes,  the  squares  are  our  palettes,”  he  wrote,  and  he threw himself with gusto into preserving the new revolutionary state.8

Bolshevism’s alliance with the avant-garde in the revolution’s crucial first phase  (from  Civil  War  to  New  Economic  Policy,  1918–21)  was  eased  by the appointment of Anatoly Lunacharsky to the Commissariat of Enlight- enment  in  November  1917.  A  prewar  associate of  Aleksander Bogdanov, the  independent  Bolshevik  philosopher  who  had  clashed  with  Lenin  over culture,  Lunacharsky  worked  with  Trotsky  in  Paris  during  the  war  and rejoined the Bolsheviks in 1917. At his new ministry, he practised a shrewd and generous utopianism, moved by an emancipatory ideal for the working class—“to acquire, in the course of many years, genuine culture, to achieve true consciousness of its own human worth, to enjoy the salutary fruits of contemplation and sensibility.”9  But this was tempered by the pressures of a  collapsing  economy  and  the  rival  advocacy  of  utilitarian  technical edu- cation. Popular education was in disastrous straits. By 1925, less than half the school population had finished even three years of schooling and total enrollments were less than 50 percent of 1913 levels.

Still, Lunacharsky’s ideal of cultural emancipation created a framework of  excitement,  and  his  Commissariat  gave  ample  scope  for avant-gardists and cultural visionaries. It housed a museum department; sections for the- ater, music, art, literature, cinema, and photography; the Telegraph Agency; the arts schools; the Higher State Art-Technical Studio; and the Institute of Artistic  Culture.  It  was  responsible  for  schools,  universities,  scientific- technical  education,  and  child  welfare  too.  Lunacharsky  was  ecumenical. While harnessing Fururism’s energy, he rejected its iconoclastic absolutism. He also wished to preserve, maintaining classical traditions and protecting museums  against  vandalism.  While  enlisting  the  youthful  avant-garde, he also  worked  with  nonsocialists  among  the  old  intelligentsia.  He  saw  the vitality of the new and needed innovators like Mayakovsky but refused to privilege them in the revolution’s agenda.10

Lunacharsky saw that art needed its freedom—tolerating diversity and excess  was  the  key  virtue.  This  was  clearest  his  in  relations  with  Prolet- kult, the proletarian culture movement inspired in 1917 by Bogdanov and the  Vpered  group.11   Urging  a  culture  of  workers  themselves,  free  of  ex- perts,  analogous  to  workers’  councils  in  production  and  economics, Pro- letkult  clashed  with  Bolshevism’s  primacy  of  the  party.  For  Lenin  and other Bolsheviks, it seemed merely a refuge for intellectuals chafing against party discipline, a magnet for potential opposition. Leaders like Nadezhda


Krupskaya and Lenin himself sought Proletkult’s subordination, while Pro- letkultists defended themselves as the voice of an authentic proletarian cul- ture.

Lunacharsky was caught in the middle. His use of Futurists antagonized party leaders, who wanted “more proletarian simplicity [in] our art.”12  But Proletkultists also inflamed Bolshevik preferences for centralism and polit- ical  control:  Proletkult  factory  cells  threatened  Party  jurisdiction.  Prolet- kult’s  scale,  with  four  hundred  thousand  in  its  studios  and  workshops, made  this  dissonance  a  serious  matter.  When  the  Proletarian  University, launched in Moscow on Proletkult initiative in early 1919, became forcibly merged  into  Sverdlov  Communist  University,  with  its  narrower  model  of political education, the writing was on the wall. Pressures for moving Pro- letkult  directly  under  the  Commissariat  grew  immense, and  at the  end of

1920 it was subordinated via the new Chief Committee for Political Edu- cation.

Proletkult’s  history  showed  the  central  postrevolutionary tension—be- tween  revolutionary  creativity  and  revolutionary  consolidation.  For  most Bolsheviks, the revolution’s survival dictated single-minded concentration, from which the avant-garde was a frivolous and costly diversion. For Trot- sky and Lenin, immersed in administrative and military details, while strug- gling  to  preserve a longer-term vision, artistic autonomy seemed a luxury when the regime was fighting for its life in the Civil War. People might not live by bread alone, but for now the overwhelming demand was indeed for

bread and coal.” Lenin looked at Proletkult’s fertile heterodoxy and saw only  an  “abundance  of  escapees  from  the  bourgeois  intelligentsia”  who treated educational work “as the most convenient field for their own per- sonal fantasies.”13

In such circumstances, asserting control over cultural policy came as no surprise.  In  fact,  Proletkult’s  subordination  to  the  Commissariat  bespoke the larger administrative stabilization of the New Economic Policy (NEP), ratified  at  the  Bolsheviks’  Tenth  Congress  in  March  1921.  This  declared limited toleration of market relations and private property, especially in the countryside. It was conceived as a breathing-space, sheltering the exhausted Soviet  regime  after  the  Civil  War  and  adjusting  to  revolution’s  failure  in the West. As Lenin said, the time-scale of socialist construction was differ- ent  from  the  pace  of  revolution:  “Learn  to  work  at  a  different  tempo, reckoning  your  work  by  decades  not  by  months,  and  gearing  yourself to the  mass  of  mankind  [sic]  who  have  suffered  torments  and  who  cannot keep up a revolutionary-heroic tempo in everyday work.” This call to the prosaic, to “a mood of patience, caution and compromise,” was echoed by Kamenev: “We have come out of the period of landslides, of sudden earth- quakes,  of  catastrophes,  we  have  entered  on  a  period  of  slow  economic processes which we must know how to watch.” In politics and economics, dramatized  in  early  1921  by  military  suppression  of  the  Kronstadt  com- mune, the disciplining of left-wing opponents, and the welcoming of non-


socialist specialists for their much-needed skills, the change was abrupt. But in  culture,  the  painful  contraction  of  radical  futures  took  longer to  work itself out.14

In  1917,  the  revolution  had  released  the  imagination—a  sense  of  no holds  barred,  of  being  on  the  edge  of  possibility,  of  “blast[ing]  open  the continuum of history,” in Walter Benjamin’s words.15  It brought an ecstasy of transgression, in which the people occupied the palaces and art suffused the texture of life, dissolving dichotomies between high culture and low. In the  vast  popular  festivals,  like  May  Day  1918  in  Petrograd  and  the  Bol- shevik revolution’s first anniversary in Moscow or the four great Petrograd festivals of 1920, the masses staged symbolic dramas of history, while the artists seized the potential of the streets—of carnival and circus, puppetry and  cartoons,  and  other  popular  media.  Carrying  art  to  the  masses  took many forms in 1918–20: the ubiquitous posters; street theater; factory arts groups, with genres of industrial writing and performance; and the “agit- trains”  that  used  art  and  film  to  politicize  the  peasants.  The  forms  were carnivalesque  rather  than  monumental,  the  aesthetic  one  of  movement rather than order.



But this synergy of artists and people required the Civil War’s hiatus of public authority, when “culture” was left to its own devices, sheltered by Lunacharsky’s  generosity.  It  was  the  full  flower  of  revolutionary  culture; far  more  so  than  the  official  projects  for  recasting  public  values,  like the formal  calendar  of  revolutionary  festivals,  new  flags,  and  anthems,  or Lenin’s plan for covering Moscow with monuments to past revolutionary heroes.  Vitality  dissipated  once  Proletkult  was  disciplined  and  NEP  was inaugurated  in  the  winter  of  1920–21.  Excitement  still  occurred. Mayak- ovsky  was  irrepressibly  active.  Constructivism,  the  revolution’s  most  co- herent artistic movement, forever epitomized by Vladimir Tatlin’s famously unbuilt Monument to the Third International, climaxed after the shift. Ag- itational  culture  survived.  Soviet  film  was  just  getting  started.16   But  the mood had nonetheless changed.

In  all  these  respects,  the  Bolshevik  Revolution  staged  a  paradigmatic debate over the shaping of socialist culture and its translation into policy. The most attractive position—a generous-spirited socialist humanism, too abstracted from practical urgencies of state-building to carry the day—was Lunacharsky’s.  Another  stance,  shared  by  Proletkultists  and  avant-garde, was a confrontational “left modernism,” demanding breaks with the past and the invention of new forms. Both were defeated by the dominant men- tality  after  the  Civil  War.  This  new  mood  contained  an  extreme utilitari- anism, approaching education exclusively via the Soviet economy’s desper- ate  needs  for  technical  skills.  It  was  reinforced  by  Marxist  reductionism, which  viewed  culture  as  a  secondary  phenomenon  shaped  by  material forces,  something  to  be  measured  by  the  prevailing socioeconomic condi- tions. A new culture could not be immediately created, in this view. It could only arrive through the future economic transformation.


Consequently, the Bolshevik revolution’s cultural legacy was ambiguous. On one side was the joy of creative release, by which extraordinary achieve- ments,  in  the  formal  arts  and  popular  culture,  could  occur. On the other side, though, was NEP’s normalized official culture, a straitening of revo- lutionary imagination, which brought greater toleration for prerevolution- ary and classical traditions but less readiness for cultural risks. Beneath this new  “moderation”  was  an  uneasy  awareness of  popular conservatism, of the smallness of the socialist working class and its exhaustion in the Civil War,  and  of  the  recalcitrance  of  everyday  behavior.  As  Trotsky  reflected:

Politics  are  flexible,  but  life  is  immovable  and  stubborn. . . . It  is  much more  difficult  for  life  than  for  the  state  to  free  itself  from  ritual.”17   How the Left would deal with this question, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, was vital for the post-Bolshevik era.

THE  LEFT  AND  INTELLECTUALS In the 1919 Hungarian Soviet, the efforts of the Commissariat of Education under  Georg  Luka´cs  mirrored  Lunacharsky’s  in  Russia.  These  included  a broadly conceived school reform, literacy campaigns, adult education pro- grams, and the Workers’ University in Budapest; support of the arts via the Artists’ and Writers’ Registries; opening the Academy of Art to modernism, with a new teaching studio stressing public decoration, poster design, and other mass forms; and a fraught but tolerant relationship with the avant- garde,  like  the  self-aggrandizing  poet  Lajos  Kassak  and  his  Futurists. Lu- ka´cs  balanced  democratizing  the  classical  European  heritage  with  radical innovation.

The pioneer film theorist Bela Bala´zs transformed the repertoire of the newly  nationalized  theaters,  combining  progressive  national  drama  with classical and modern European plays and distributing subsidized tickets via trade unions. He created traveling theater troupes and an imaginatively run Film Directorate. He produced 31 films (adaptations of world literature for working-class audiences); ran a documentary and newsreel unit; published a lively journal, Vo¨ro¨ s Film (Red Film); and planned a film actors’ school. Bala´zs  prioritized  children,  with  traveling  puppet  shows  and  “afternoons of  fables”  and  a  children’s  film  unit.  Assumptions  were  challenged in ex- treme ways. Luka´cs wanted to ban nonrecognized newspapers, destroy all property  records,  prohibit  alcohol,  and  promote  liberated  sexuality  and opposition to parental authority among children. He pursued an “earthly paradise which we thought of as communism” in an avowedly “sectarian, ascetic  sense”:  “There  was  absolutely  no  thought  in  our  minds  of  a  land flowing  with  milk  and  honey.  What  we  wanted  was  to  revolutionize  the crucial problems of life.”18

The Hungarian Soviet matched young intellectuals like Luka´cs and Bal- a´zs with younger trade unionists, all radicalized by the war.19  Before 1914,


the Habsburg Empire’s ramshackle disorder had stoked desires for political regeneration, increasingly in exclusionary nationalist ways. In Hungary, an interlocking  public  culture  had  shaped  this opposition—the review Husz- adik Sza´zad (Twentieth Century, launched 1 January 1900) and the asso- ciated Social Science Society a year later; the Free School of Social Sciences for  workers’  education  classes  (1906);  the  Galileo  Circle  for  students  at Budapest University (1908); several Freemason lodges; and the e´litist Sun- day Circle around Luka´cs and Bala´zs after 1915, with its esoteric seminar and  lecture  program.  These  prewar  networks  already  included  socialists, influenced by Ervin Szabo´ . The Sunday Circle produced the cultural cadres of the future revolutionary government, including Luka´cs and Bala´zs, Be´la Fogarasi  (the Soviet’s director of higher education), Frigyes Antal (deputy head  of  the  Art  Directorate),  and  a  team  of  art  historians,  philosophers, and writers working for Luka´cs, including Lajos Fu¨ lep, Tibor Gergely, Ar- nold Hauser, Anna Lesznai, Karl Mannheim, Ervin Sinko´ , Wilhelm Szilasi, Charles de To´ lnay, and Janos Wilde.20

This cohort’s passage from romantic anticapitalism and ethical critique to  revolutionary  politics  was  a  pan-European  phenomenon.  Universities had  grown  hugely  during  1870–1913,  tripling  student  numbers  in  most countries, while secondary schooling expanded two to five times.21  Publics for “high culture” also grew. Theater and concert-going flourished: in Ger- many, for example, the number of theaters increased from two hundred to six  hundred  during  1870–96.  The  fine  art  market  boomed;  big-city  and monumental architecture, and the fashion for public statuary, boosted de- mand for architects and sculptors; reproductions of great masters and mass editions  of  literary  classics  serviced  the  cultivated  public.  Industrialized structures of public communication expanded careers in the literary, visual, and technical arts, with massive growth of the daily and periodical press, expansion of photography and illustration, the rise of advertising and the poster,  and  the  arrival  of  cinema,  to  be  followed  after  1918  by  public broadcasting. New opportunities for employment, accreditation, and sub- sidy changed the artist’s relationship to the market, private patronage, and the state.22

This  was  the  sociology  for  a  dissenting  intelligentsia—larger numbers of the academically educated and artistically active, in a different working environment. Before 1914, the rhetoric of the “artist or intellectual in so- ciety” quickened, vesting Geist (“intellect” or “the spiritual”) with special responsibilities  for  national  well-being  during  massive  social  change  and lost bearings. A clash between ethicocultural values and industrial-capitalist civilization pitted the realm of the spirit against sociopolitical life. German expressions  ranged  from  the  apolitical  aestheticism  of  the  Stefan  George circle  to  the  political  messianism  of  the  journal  Die  Aktion,  launched  in

1911. But by 1914, the future emergence of a self-conscious radical intel- ligentsia  claiming  a  voice  in  politics  could  be  glimpsed.  The  intelligentsia had  also  acquired  a  big  technical  and  professional  component,  the  “new


middle class” of managers, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, doctors, teach- ers, social workers, clergy, journalists, and public administrators. The Hun- garian Soviet’s leaders included not only socialist activists, trade unionists, and  newly  radicalized  creative  intellectuals  but  also  engineers  and  other white-collar professionals of this ilk.23

The war brought cultural unease to a political head. The shock of the trenches  was  the  radicalizing  event.  Nearly  all  the  writers,  artists,  musi- cians,  and  filmmakers  of  Weimar  Germany’s  left-intellectual  culture were born  in  the  early  1890s  and  after  (architects  tended  to  be  a  decade older), making them 20 and younger when war began, acutely vulnerable to  its  shattering  effects.24    Artists  like  Max  Beckmann,  Otto  Dix,  and George  Grosz  were  profoundly  marked  by  the  front,  as  were  dramatist- poets like Erwin Piscator, Ernst Toller, and Carl Zuckmayer. Politics was preceded  by  humanist  revulsion  and  existential  trauma—mental  hospital and  breakdowns  were  common.  Radicalism  was  borne  by  the  expressive qualities  of  a  new  art,  galvanized  by  Berlin  Dada  in  1917–18.  Protests were  angry  and  symbolic—both  Grosz  and  his  friend  John  Heartfield

(Helmut Herzfelde) legally anglicized their names against the reigning an- glophobia.  An  older  generation,  like  the  leading  Jugendstil  (art  nouveau) painter Heinrich Vogeler, could also be radicalized: “The war has made a Communist  of  me.  After  my  war  experiences  I  could  no  longer  counte- nance  belonging  to  a  class  that  had  driven  millions  of  people  to  their death.”25

Amid  the  horrors  of  war,  popular  protests  and  military  collapse  then posed a moral and political choice. Bela Bala´zs pondered the prospects of revolution: “I would not participate . . . (I would participate only in a rev- olution  of  the  soul). . . . But  if,  by  accident,  the  battle  reached  me on  the barricade,  I  would  no  longer  run  away.  The  question  is  this:  where  does the barricade begin?”26   By 1918, abstract musings had gone. Zuckmayer, Piscator,  Toller,  Vogeler,  the  young  Bertolt  Brecht,  students  like  Max Horkheimer   and   Herbert   Marcuse   (future   members   of   the   Frankfurt School), and many others joined the German Revolution. Intellectuals or- ganized  themselves  in  the  “Revolutionary  Central  Committee  of  Dada”; the short-lived Political Council of Intellectual Workers in Berlin and Mu- nich;  the  November  Group  for  the  interests  of  radical  artists;  and  the longer-lasting  Working  Council  for  Art,  lobbying  official  policy  in  archi- tecture  and  design.  Piscator,  Grosz,  Heartfield,  and  his  brother  Wieland Herzfelde were founder members of the KPD. The ill-fated Bavarian Soviet in  April  1919  depended  heavily  on  intellectuals,  including  Toller,  the anarcho-communist  writer  Erich  Mu¨ hsam,  and  the  intellectual  anarchist Gustav  Landauer.  This  Budapest  and  Munich  pattern  was  repeated  in Prague, where a Socialist Council of Intellectual Workers rallied to the rev- olutionary banner on 6 July 1919; and Turin, where Gramsci and the Or- dine nuovo group urged an encompassing cultural program on the factory councils in 1919–20.


How far did this mirror the experience of revolutionary Russia? There was the same explosion of creativity, inseparable from war and revolution. For many, the creative act could never be the same again. Heinrich Vogeler recorded this rupture perfectly. From prewar success in art nouveau (“lap- dog of the big bourgeoisie”), he turned to full-time activism under Weimar, first as a council communist and then in the KPD till his expulsion in 1929. He  turned  his  Barkenhoff  estate  near  Bremen  into  a  socialist  commune, then  into  a  home  for  children  of  victimized  workers.  He  formed  the  As- sociation  of  German  Revolutionary  Artists  in  1928,  before  emigrating to the USSR, dying in 1942. The war was the pivotal experience. He volun- teered in 1914 but by January 1918 was committed to mental hospital for sending Wilhelm II a peace letter. He turned to socialist theory and surfaced in the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Osterholz near Bremen. He became a painter of political murals. Those in the Barkenhoff home became a cause ce´le`bre when the state ordered them removed in 1927. After protests, they were  covered  up  instead,  only  to  be  destroyed  by  the  Hitler  Youth  in

1939.27

Such changes were never totally abrupt. Vogeler was in the Garden City Society  before  1914,  drafting  blueprints  for workers’ settlements and vis- iting Britain to study Glasgow slums and the model town of Port Sunlight. Bruno Taut was another example. Designer of the Falkenberg garden city

(1912–14) and the “Glass House” at the Cologne Werkbund exhibition in

1914, he advocated housing reform and a visionary architectural philoso- phy, fusing “the social and rational skills of the architect with the fantasy and  subjectivism  of  the  painter.”28    His  postwar  activities,  chairing  the Council of Intellectual Workers and the Working Council for Art till March




1919, continued these commitments. Yet neither the utopian fancies of the

“Alpine  Architecture”  folio,  begun  in  1917,  and  the  Glass  Chain  (1919–

20) nor his interest in Proletkult were conceivable without war and revo- lution. Likewise, the next period produced a further turn. If revolutionary turbulence brought construction projects to a halt, the stability of the mid-

1920s put socialist architects back to work. The distance from the Taut of the  Gla¨serne  Kette,  spinning  his  crystal  castles  in  the  air,  to  the  Taut  of Die neue Wohnung (The New Dwelling, 1924), settling down to the famous public housing projects in Berlin, was a paradigmatic contrast.29

SOCIALIST  CULTURE  AND  MASS  CULTURE

Younger  artists,  writers,  and  academics  joined  revolutionary  movements from a me´lange of utopian, anarcho-communist, radical bohemian, or plain nihilistic motives, often with an e´litist thrust. The German Political Council of Intellectual Workers, for example, naively expected workers’ councils to welcome their leadership.30   Such intellectuals celebrated the destruction of


the old without seeing clearly the new. George Grosz was emblematic, with his  savage  caricatures  of  militarists,  judges,  civil  servants,  and  bourgeois philistines,  his  burning  humanist  morality,  and  his  radical  links  to  Dada, Malik-Verlag,  and  the  KPD.31   But  if  Grosz  joined  the  Communists  with fellow artists like Vogeler and the brothers Heartfield/Herzfelde, it remained unclear what this meant.

One theorist offering answers was Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s cultural and  educational  initiatives in Turin—the Clubs of Moral Life (1917), the School of Culture and Propaganda (1919), and the Institutes of Proletarian Culture  (1920)—paralleled  Bogdanov’s  vision  of  Proletkult,  to  which  the

1920  Institutes  were  affiliated.  The  project  of  l’Ordine  nuovo  (1919–20) was guided by an ideal of working-class self-realization in the new agency of  the  factory  councils.  From  1916,  Gramsci  had  pressed  for  a  Socialist cultural association to match the party and Cooperative Alliance, as “the third organ of the movement.”32  He was inspired by a broader generational challenge  to  the  provincialism  of  Italian  high  culture,  drawing  on  the ac- tivism associated with Georges Sorel, Henri Bergson’s voluntarism, and Be- nedetto Croce’s general philosophy. Here, culture was not just the arts and scholarship but “exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas, habit of connecting  causes  and  effects.”  For  Gramsci,  “everybody  is  already  cul- tured because everybody thinks.” The goal should be promotion of critical thinking, or “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever  one  does.”  This  couldn’t  be  left  to  the  schools  or  spontaneous workers’ experience. It had to be actively promoted: “Let us organize cul- ture in the same way that we seek to organize any practical activity.”33

Unless political revolution was accompanied by cultural change, Gram- sci argued, it would never breach capitalism’s less visible defences, the en- trenched bourgeois values and social relations of civil society. Socialists had a double task. Ordinary people should be empowered in their own delib- erative  capacities,  so  that  intellectual  functions  could  be  freed  from  the monopoly of a specialized e´lite; and the working class should be raised to moral-political leadership in society. The practical agency was the factory councils  of  1919–20.  For  Gramsci,  the  councils’  revolutionary  character was precisely this cultural potential. They were media of working-class self- education, “schools of propaganda.” This should happen on the broadest cultural  front.  They  should  raise  workers  to  a  sense of  their full capacity to govern production and thence society.

While  the  victory  of  Fascism  liquidated  the  legal  preconditions  for Gramsci’s ambitious cultural-political program in Italy, by the 1920s there were  already  strong  traditions  of  socialist  culture-building  in  Europe.34

These were commonly found in self-contained and internally cohesive com- munities,  where  priorities  were  superficially  the  opposite  of  a  grandiose cultural  program.  In  such  local  strongholds,  the  goals  were  usually  the mundane ones of defending and improving working-class living standards.


Progress was measured very prosaically by the delivery of services in hous- ing,  unemployment  assistance,  job  creation,  educational  access,  public health, public transportation, and other aspects of welfare and public good. But in another dimension, these local solidarities raised countercultural challenges   to   authority—against  courts,  schools,  regional  government, church,  and  the  national  state,  all  of  them  enmeshed  with  the  power  of local capitalists. In “little Moscows,” small towns and villages across Eu- rope where socialists had established local dominance, culture was a battle- ground. These local communities had the familiar texture of working-class collective  life:  “the  banners,  the  bands,  the  evening  socials and  sport, the youth groups, the Friends of the Soviet Union, and so on.”35  But this quo- tidian  culture  also  disclosed  an  explicitly  political  identity.  Here,  the working-class  life-world—organized  around  basic  values  of  community and cooperation, fellowship and mutuality, independence and resistance to authority—was shaped in unusually politicized ways. Face-to-face democ- racy was key: “industrial activities, cooperative societies and other organ- izations  were  all  constituted  on  the  sovereignty  of  the  membership,” and democracy  was  kept  to  a  public  arena  of  open  and  collective  decision- making,  “at  public  meetings  or  in  open  air.”36   But  two  questions  arise. Whereas this politicized culture could be both subversive and empowering, how  far  did  it  really  challenge  the  dominant  culture  in  Gramsci’s  sense?

And: what were its blind spots? We can get closer to some answers by considering two of the strongest

cases of a prefigurative socialist strategy in cultural terms. To take the first of these, “Red Vienna” was Europe’s most imposing showcase of municipal socialism  between  the  wars.37    Its  centerpiece  was  public  housing,  with

64,000  apartments  in  large  housing  blocks,  servicing  one-seventh  of  the city at 5 percent of a worker’s wage. Financed by a luxury tax, this was a directly  redistributive  strategy.  Moreover,  the  program’s  scale and ramifi- cations gave it a special edge. This was the first socialist party “to preside over a city with over a million inhabitants, and ‘Red Vienna’ was the first practical example of a long-term Socialist strategy of reforming the entire infrastructure of a metropolis.”38

The housing blocks were a project of “anticipatory socialism,” designed to  express  collectivist  goals  and  an  integrated  communal  life.  The  plans allowed for greenery, usable courtyards, and cultural space: meeting places and club rooms, common baths and laundries, cooperative stores and res- taurants,  nurseries,  playgrounds,  and  the  general  run  of  civic  provision, from schools and libraries to parks, swimming areas, gymnasia, health fa- cilities,  and  clinics.  The  infrastructure  of  civic  life  was  relocated  inside  a physically  demarcated  socialist  public  sphere,  further  solidified  by  the  21 districts of SPO¨   organization, with their electoral subdivisions and house- cum-street associations and citywide subcultural apparatus of clubs. Hous- ing policy was complemented by an innovative public health program and a progressive educational reform, based on the common school, cooperative


pedagogy, abolition of corporal punishment, and extensive adult education. The  new  housing  blocks—“worker  palaces”  or  “red  fortresses”—formed a symbolic counterlandscape to the ruling architecture of monuments, pal- aces, and museums.

There were limits to this prefigurative vision. If the housing blocks pro- vided for collective life and political culture, they failed to promote a par- ticipatory  ethic,  treating  tenants  as  passive  beneficiaries  of  a  paternalist administration.39  Socialist city planners celebrated standardization and the economies of scale, discarding other models. In 1918–20, though, a massive squatters’ movement had arisen on Vienna’s outskirts involving 55,000 res- idents. These were organized into cooperative housing associations, which practised self-management and projected garden cities based on owner oc- cupancy and collective facilities. But by 1921 the socialist city had asserted control;  participatory  culture  dissolved;  and  the  alternative  model  of  the one-family home was wholly exchanged for the new superblocks.40

Red Vienna remained an imposing fortress of working-class solidarity. Austrian Social Democracy was “the most massive and comprehensive . . . of  the  mass  proletarian  parties”  formed  before  1914,  avoiding  splits and the  rivalry  of  a  sizeable  Communist  Party:  the  Vienna  working class was solidly in its fold, joining or voting for the party or belonging to its man- ifold  clubs  and  associations,  from  Worker  Choirs  and  Worker  Sports  to Worker  Stamp  Collectors  and  Worker  Rabbit  Breeders.41   Beyond  its  na- tional  electoral  strength  (42.3  percent,  1927)  and  municipal  power,  the party  organized  its  own  militia  after  1923,  the  Schutzbund,  which  was larger than the official army.

Yet  political  passivity  brought  the  movement’s  ruin  between  the  crisis of  15  July  1927  and  the  civil  war  of  February  1934,  and  the  ease  of  the its suppression questions the efficacy of the SPO¨ ’s socialist culture in Gram- sci’s sense. In the 1926 Linz Program, Otto Bauer and other leaders evinced revolutionary  intentions  and  expected  to  come  to  power.  At  the  opening of  the Vienna  stadium  in  July  1931, 240,000 watched a mass pageant of the  movement’s  history,  which  climaxed  with  worker-actors  toppling  “a huge  gilt  idol-head  representing  capital  from  its  metal  scaffolding.”42   Yet these  cultural  energies  and  symbolic  creativity  were  never  translated  into revolutionary action—that is, into the confrontational readiness needed to convert the party’s democratic legitimacy into actual power.

In  these  lights,  Vienna’s  socialist  subculture  starts  to  seem  like  a  dis- placement, both a retreat into the municipal arena after the loss of national government power in 1920 and compensation for the new period of wait- ing.  Something  similar  occurred  in  Germany,  where  the  SPD’s  “cultural socialism” forms my second example. Also excluded from national govern- ment  in  June  1920  yet  firmly  ensconced  in  Prussia  and  other states, bun- kered  into  the  Republic’s  labor-corporative  and  welfare-statist  arrange- ments,   the   SPD   and   its   unions   were   practically   integrated   into   the parliamentary  system.  Propagating  socialist  values  fell  to  the  cultural  or-


ganizations,  the  “third  pillar”  of  the  movement,  which  also  nurtured the movement’s revolutionary e´lan. Socialism regrouped as a prefigurative proj- ect: “the picture of a new order has to be strongly anchored in the minds before  it  is  possible  to  erect  the  building.  And  every  political  influence is pointless  if  the  acquisition  of  education,  knowledge  and  culture  does  not take place at the same time.”43

This  recalled  Gramsci’s  language.  Socialist  cultural  activism  was  cer- tainly impressive, prospering under Weimar’s new freedoms. Worker Sports grew from 169,000 members to 770,000 between 1912 and 1928, Worker Singers  from  192,000  to  440,000,  and  Worker  Cyclists  from  148,000  to

220,000.  Worker  Athletes  (boxers,  wrestlers,  weightlifters)  grew  from

10,000 members to 56,000, and “Nature Lovers” (ramblers, rock-climbers, skiers,  canoeists)  from  10,000  to  79,000.  There  were  leagues  for  chess, sailing,  angling,  hunting,  bowling,  and  gliding.  They  all  nourished  alter- native values, including cooperative ideals of discipline and mutuality, and a noncompetitive ethos of participation and collective endeavor as against the star system and the individualist cult of winning. It became harder to resist  pressures  for  competitive  reward  (trophies,  medals,  certificates  of merit),  to  be  sure,  and  the  modern  sporting  spectacle  was  also  gaining ground.  But  cultivating  fellowship—common  socializing,  taking  trips  to- gether, sing-songs, and collective recitation of workers’ poems—kept these trends reasonably at bay.

There was a huge upswing after 1918 in “life reform”—natural living, exercise  and  fresh  air,  sensible  nutrition,  abstinence from alcohol and to- bacco,  rational  dress,  therapy,  preventive  medicine,  and  sex  counseling. These interests were served by Proletarian Nudists’ Clubs and especially in the sex  reform movement, with its birth control leagues, progressive doc- tors, women’s groups, and Socialist and Communist welfare organizations.

“Lay sex reform groups, with their illustrated journals filled with advice of sexual technique, contraception, eugenic hygiene, health, and the protection of  mothers;  their  centers  for  the  distribution  of  contraceptives;  and  their many  therapeutic question-and-answer lectures, were an integral and cru- cial  part  of  the  working-class  subculture  of  the  Weimar  Republic.”44   The People’s Health League, based in Dresden, practised holistic medicine, ho- meopathic  remedies,  and  nudism.  The  changed  climate  for  such  activities was illustrated by the Proletarian Freethinkers, who advocated secularized rites of passage, abolition of religious instruction in the schools, cremation, and leaving the church. From 6,000 members in 1914, this movement at- tained mass status with 590,000 members in 1929.45



Cultural socialism promoted its collectivist ethic via team sports, massed gymnastic  displays,  and  experiments  with  group  forms  like  synchronized swimming. The massed choirs gracing most party festivals symbolized the relationship  of  cultural  emancipation,  collective  effort,  and  mass  form:

50,000 amateur musicians attended the first Workers’ Song Festival in Han- over  in  1928.46   These  activities  seemed  to  meet  Gramsci’s ideal. The SPD


now mobilized progressive intellectuals outside its own ranks, permitting a stronger challenge to the dominant culture’s legitimacy than the pre-1914 subcultural ghettoization had ever allowed. It also kept its own educational machine, enhanced by the subsidized adult educational systems of big SPD- run cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig.

In  its  end  goals  cultural  socialism  expected  workers’  daily  lives  to  be transformed. But in trying to prefigure this utopia in the capitalist present, it organized an artificially separate cultural sphere—“a sort of holiday cul- ture, a culture for the rare moment.”47  It bracketed precisely the arenas— workplace, party-political structures, family—where the new values needed to  be  most  tenaciously  pursued.  Above  all,  the  forthright  masculinity  of socialist movement culture was almost never brought self-consciously into focus.48  In this sense, the tripartite division of labor that the cultural move- ment accepted in order to call itself the “third pillar” was profoundly re- formist. It stopped short of the fully integrated conception of “anticipatory socialism  that  a  genuinely  “Gramscian”  centering  of  cultural  struggle would  imply.  As  Gramsci  knew,  culture  was  too  important  to  leave  to

culture alone.49

MASS  ENTERTAINMENT,  POLITICS, AND  PLEASURE

This hallowing of culture, which removed it from the everyday, was fateful. Popular  culture  was  already  being  transformed  by  cheap  technologies  of mass  entertainment  and  leisure.  This  preceded  1914—with  photography, film, phonograph, and radio, plus bicycle, motor car, telephone, and type- writer. But the possibilities came fully to fruition between the wars. In 1919 there were 2,386 cinemas in Germany, slightly less than 1914; but by 1929 there were over 5,300, making Germany the largest European film market. The cinema’s physical setting was also changing, with itinerant film shows and smaller houses giving way to the picture palace, including Britain’s first four-thousand-seaters  in  Glasgow  (1925)  and  Croydon  (1928).  In  much smaller  Sweden,  cinemas  more  than  doubled,  from  703  to  1,719,  in  the first postwar decade.50

Radio  grew  spectacularly.  Regular  broadcasting  began  in  the  early

1920s, instantly generating new listening publics. Britain and Germany led in subscribers (4.5 and 4.0 million, 1931), but Sweden was proportionately just as high (1.5 million, 1940). This extended far into the working class, composing a quarter of the German listening public by 1930. In the major British  city  of  Liverpool,  9 out of  10  families had a  radio  by  1936. Print media  also  expanded.  Newspapers  were  transformed  by  technology,  ad- vertising,  expanding  urban  populations,  and  a  new  demotic  tone.  British sales of national dailies climbed from 3.1 million to 10.6 million between the wars. Other commercial forms, owing less to technology, transformed


popular   culture   in   similar   directions,   notably   dancing   and   spectator sports.51

How  did  this  commercialized  culture  of  leisure,  seeing  itself  as  enter- tainment rather than art, diversion rather than uplift, affect the labor move- ment’s organized culture? One response was to “tame” the new media by nationalizing  the  film  industry  and  regulating  radio,  or  by  using  “softer” forms of public control. The SPD proposed state participation in Germany’s second largest film company, Emelka, in 1928, and secured access to radio via legislation in 1926. In both cases, it treated new media as novel means for old ends, either educationally via radio lectures and arts programs (like the “Workers’ Hour” series provided by the Hamburg Workers’ Board of Trustees on social aspects of the Weimar Constitution), or agitationally via specially  produced  films  and  mobile  propaganda  units  (like  the  Braun- schweig SPD’s “People’s Red Cinema”). More ambitiously, the SPO¨  had its own  film  company,  operating  13  cinemas  directly  and  supplying  another

25 before the movement’s destruction in 1934. But independent programing couldn’t compete with the glitter and excitement of commercial cinema and either appealed to smaller audiences of the converted or compromised with commercial operation.52

Many  socialists  rejected  the  new  media  altogether,  neither  seeing  the technical  potentials  nor  validating  the  pleasures.  Traditionally,  socialists disparaged  plebeian  culture,  stressing  sobriety  and  self-improvement over the disorderly realities of many worker’s lives. Socialists drew sharp moral lines  between  their  own  self-educated  respectability  and  the  apolitical roughness  of  the  working-class  poor—or  between  “the  W.E.A.  study-in- spare-time-class” and “the pub-dance-and-girl-class of young men,” as one English working man put it.53  Commercial entertainments, like music halls, circuses,  fairs,  and  rough  sports,  seemed  a  source  of  frivolity  and  back- wardness  in  working-class  culture.  Instead,  socialists  held  “the  ideal  that working people should collectively organize their own free time in morally uplifting  ways.”54   Thus  film  seemed  just  a  new  source  of  escapism  and corruption in a still-uneducated working class. In 1919, a Frankfurt USPD newspaper lamented the moral decline: “The path to the gambling dens of the big  city  begins in  the dance halls and the cinemas. . . . Surrounded by superficial  din  and  deadened  in  their souls,  the misled section of the pro- letarian youth dances its way into depravity.”55

Yet commercial cinema’s mass audience was heavily working-class. This reflected  significant  social  changes,  including  lasting  gains  in  real  wages, increased  leisure  time,  and  the  remarkable  cheapness  of  cinema  tickets.56

“Going to the pictures” became a central fixture of working-class life, pop- ular culture’s real location as against the idealized imagery of socialist cul- ture. The gap between socialist ideas of cultural progress and actual work- ers’ behavior disconcertingly widened, because with greater leisure workers turned  only  partially  to  the  socialist  cultural  organizations  yet  flocked  in masses  to  capitalist-organized  commercial  entertainment.  Too  often,  left-


wing critics blamed the workers. Movies were a capitalist trick, a medium of  ideological  manipulation  “cleverly  used  to  dope  the  workers,”  a  form of  “pseudo-culture,”  “whereby  [workers’]  attention  is  diverted  from  the class war and . . . their slave status is maintained.” For too many socialists, everyday working-class culture was a problem, something to moralize and improve.57

But  the  emergent  apparatus  of  the  “culture  industry,”  from  the  razz- matazz of the cinema and the dance hall to the rise of spectator sports, the star  system,  and  the  machineries  of  advertising  and  fashion,  proved  re- markably  successful  in  servicing  popular  desires  in  the  1920s.  It  invaded precisely  the  human  space  of  everyday  life  that  socialists  were  neglecting to  fill.  Moreover,  once  the  labor  movement’s  infrastructure  had  been smashed by fascism in Italy and Germany, this private recreational domain proved the fascist state’s most successful sites of intervention. Fascism was not just the instrument of antidemocratic repression and a system of terror

(although it was certainly both) but also harnessed psychic needs and uto- pian longings the Left neglected  at  their peril. By the same argument, the emerging popular culture was not simply an empty and depoliticized com- mercial corruption of traditional working-class culture but possessed dem- ocratic  validity  of  its  own.  The  fantasies  produced  in  Hollywood  were  a bridge to ordinary desire, the daydreams of poverty and depression. They described  an  imaginary  space  ready  for  occupation,  whether  the  Left wanted to move there or not.58

CONCLUSION:  SOCIALIST  VERSUS MASS  CULTURE

Measured   by   a   “Gramscian”   model   of   cultural   politics,  the  socialist achievements of the 1920s only partially fit the bill. Radicalized intellectuals vitally assisted the revolutionary upswing. Socialist politics became linked to  anticipatory  change  in  culture.  Many  on  the  Left  agreed  that  cultural struggle  had  to  be  organized.  But  this  invariably  occurred  in  paternalist ways, as something provided for the masses, either by the movement’s cul- tural and educational auxiliaries or via growing control of central and local government,   in   an   improving  but  ultimately  controlling  manner.  The masses’  cultural  empowerment,  via  experimentation and  self-directed cre- ativity rather than reception of ready-made cultural goods, rarely occurred outside the revolutionary situations of 1917–21, when party discipline fell away.  The  SPD’s  “cultural  socialism,”  with  its  collectivist ethic and mass participation, was a partial exception. But even here, the watchwords were discipline, coordination, and rational control, rather than imagination and worker-initiated creativity. There was little sign of Gramsci’s extended con- ception of culture as the general faculty of thinking—of the idea that “cul- ture  is  ordinary”  and  involves  the  making  and  remaking  of  a  society’s


common meanings.” There was little attempt to locate the possibilities of a  democratic  and  alternative  culture  in  the  workplace  and  the  domestic arenas of the everyday.59

The  creativity  of  working-class  solidarity,  and  the  complex  texture  of working-class  community  life,  remained  impressive. Socialists successfully fashioned these strengths into a collective agency for achieving social and political goals—conducting strikes and campaigns, building local hegemo- nies,  winning  national  elections,  or  fighting  fascism  and  other  forms  of reaction. Whether the main forms of collective organization were adaptable for  the  challenges  of  continuing  social  change  (like  the  new  cultures  of entertainment  and  mass  consumption),  however,  was  less  clear.  How  far did these movements create fully fledged alternative cultures, strong enough to replace society’s existing value system? How capable were they of pro- viding a new morality, of generating counterhegemonic potentials in Gram- sci’s  sense?  Pace  the  remarkable  achievements  of  local  socialisms,  it  was here—in the fall of the PSI’s regional bastions to Fascism, in the limits of the SPD’s cultural socialism, and in Red Vienna’s ultimate defeat—that the failures of the Left’s cultural politics were most tragic.

Beyond the dramatic violence of these defeats, in Italy (1920–22), Ger- many (1930–33), and Austria (1927–34), were fundamental omissions, go- ing  to  the  heart  of  socialism’s  prefigurative  project. Socialists consistently failed to challenge the most basic of working-class cultural attitudes in the family, concerning organization of households, domestic divisions of labor, sexuality, child-raising, and the proper roles of women and men. Instead, they  validated  conservative  models  of  respectability,  counterposing  them against  the  roughness  of  the  disorderly  poor,  as  the  best  defense  against hardship and misfortune. Increasingly, they also affirmed the virtues of the solid and respectable working-class family against commercialized cultures of  entertainment, decrying the latter’s corrupting effects. But this cleaving to conventional and reassuring ground left powerful territories of dominant ideology  intact—including  the  patriarchal  ordering  of the entire domestic sphere, prevailing distinctions of public and private, and established gender beliefs.

Socialist family values and the wholesomeness of worker sports were an increasingly compromised resource against the attractions of the new mass culture.  This  isn’t  to  diminish  the  democratic values of self-improvement, emancipation through education, and equality of access to established cul- tural goods. The cultural movement gave invaluable opportunities for ful- filment  and  enjoyment  in  an  atmosphere  of  equality  and  fellowship,  as many  memoirs  movingly  attest.  But  by  attacking  mass  culture,  socialists were isolating themselves from the bulk of the young working class, women and  men,  for  whom  “independence  meant  precisely  what  [the]  militants abhorred,  namely  consumerist  eroticism  and  leisure,  new  styles  in  dress, smoking, drinking, dancing and sport.” From providing “an ideal towards which others could strive, now for the first time since the 1890s” socialists


were  becoming  ideologically  marginal  within  the  working  class.”60   Ten- sions  were  growing  between  socialist  culture  and  popular  culture  in  the

1920s,  despite  cultural  socialists’  creativity  with  a  more  open  collectivist ethic. While the SPD’s cultural experts orchestrated the massed choirs and choreographed the gymnasts and dancers, the popular imagination was al- ready  migrating  elsewhere,  to  the  dance  halls  and  dream  palaces  of  the entertainment industry.








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