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
fewer French painters than “Spaniards (Picasso, Gris), Italians (Modi- gliani), Russians (Chagall, Lipchitz, Soutine), Romanians (Brancusi), Bul-
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
Radicals from smaller countries—the Low Countries and Scandi- navia—came naturally into its orbit. Two major countries secluded from international
servative imperial culture, Italy by Fascism—found it vicariously, as in Christopher Isherwood’s writings with their memorable portrait of
in its last pre-Nazi phase.3 This was a
notable shift in Europe’s cultural center of
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
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 excitement, and his Commissariat gave ample scope for avant-gardists and
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
THE LEFT AND INTELLECTUALS In
under Georg Luka´cs mirrored Lunacharsky’s in
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
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
Piscator, Toller, Vogeler, the young Bertolt Brecht, students like Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse (future members of the
Such changes were never
Society before 1914, drafting blueprints for workers’ settlements
(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.
ing, unemployment assistance, job creation, educational access, public health, public
challenges to authority—against courts, schools, regional government, church, and the national state, all of them enmeshed with the power of local capitalists. In
collective life: “the banners, the bands, the evening socials and sport, the youth
And: what were its blind spots? We can get closer to some answers by considering two of the strongest
cases of a prefigurative socialist
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
ticipatory ethic, treating tenants as passive beneficiaries of a
administration.39 Socialist city planners
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
ing. Something similar occurred in
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,
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.
of mothers; their centers for the distribution of contraceptives; and their many therapeutic question-and-answer
cial part of the working-class subculture of the Weimar Republic.”44 The People’s Health
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
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
MASS ENTERTAINMENT, POLITICS, AND PLEASURE
Popular culture was already being transformed by cheap technologies of mass entertainment and leisure. This preceded 1914—with photography, film,
Radio grew spectacularly. Regular broadcasting began in the early
1920s, instantly generating new
popular culture in similar directions, notably dancing and spectator sports.51
How did this commercialized culture of leisure, seeing itself as enter- tainment rather
nationalizing the film industry and regulating radio, or by using “softer” forms of
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
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
(although it was certainly both)
neglected at their peril. By
ocratic validity of its own. The fantasies produced in
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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