"I do not think that anyone could express more clearly and precisely the significance of art for the proletariat in its great struggle."
FYODOR IVANOVICH KALININ
It was with profound grief that the workers of Russia marched in procession to the funeral of one of their most remarkable leaders, Fyodor Ivanovich Kalinin. We must welcome the series of decisions taken by the Central Committee of the Proletcult to perpetuate his memory.
Memorials take different forms: they may be statues or editions of a man’s works which yet remain majestically dead or at best a closed book.
The scope of F.I. Kalinin’s thought was far from being a closed book. He was constantly expanding and developing his ideas, which are like seeds bursting with the power of growth. His true memorial, therefore, is no mere statue but a living cultural process. Comrade Kalinin was both a founder of the proletarian cultural movement and the man whose firm hand launched it on its proper course. Each retreat from that true course will, in my view, undoubtedly be a ‘heresy’.
To everything he did the late F.I. Kalinin brought an unusual degree of lucidity. Calmness, an almost classical precision of thought, confidence, a practical approach to every problem were inherent in him and made up, together with his warmth of heart and simplicity, the principal charm of his character.
Comrade Kalinin also brought that same lucidity to the question of proletarian culture, in particular to art, with which, strange as it may seem, he was more concerned than with any other branch of culture.
Fyodor Ivanovich was no artist himself. He was a thinker and organizer. But the problems of art interested him profoundly and came to occupy more and more of his attention. He was as thrilled as a child by every clear manifestation of proletarian art. Indeed, all forms of art were of equal concern to him. And this was no barbarian’s fascination with glitter and ornamentation. Kalinin never saw art in the guise of luxury and sensuous pleasure. He was most of all a thinker and organizer when he was concerned with aesthetics. He regarded art as an essential ideological weapon and cherished it as a powerful element in building socialism.
A great deal of confusion reigns in the realm of proletarian aesthetics despite the fact that the attempts to create this aesthetic have been so few and so recent. It is in this field that F.I. Kalinin’s ideas have created a canon by which to judge proletarian aesthetics. I repeat that it must grow and develop, but that it should do so on the lines that he has indicated.
Kalinin realized that art is a most subtle process whose roots lie in the very depths of the human psyche. He was not a rationalist, he was not a protagonist of didacticism in works of art, yet at the same time he objected very strongly to the least hint of mystique in the discussion of the social and individual processes of artistic creation. He strove to bring clarity even into the realm of the unconscious, which he regarded as an essential element in creativity.
In his remarkable article The Proletariat and Creativity he writes: ‘Many of the believers in mystical intuition are inclined to regard artistic creation as a gift granted only to the elect, who are capable of creating eternal values out of nothing solely by a kind of magical inspiration. This view demonstrates both their high opinion of themselves and their ignorance. All serious research into artistic creativity indicates that it can only occur as a result of intensive work following the acquisition of a rich store of experience. Creation and invention can only be achieved through amassing practical and theoretical knowledge. Every act of discovery or invention is the product of a significant accumulation of qualitative and quantitative experience or material ... Art is primarily figurative thinking; it does not prove – it reveals. It therefore cannot be based on logical thinking, if only for the reason that practically every image of any complexity contains a quantity of experience so great that the conscious memory cannot encompass it. Therefore for the artistic process to result in the creation of an image, the repressed memories of the subconscious are an essential adjunct.’
You will observe that comrade Kalinin is anxious to give full credit to the subconscious whilst simultaneously refuting the harmful notion that one can unconsciously create a significant work of art without an effort of the will or exertion of the intellect. And it is just this kind of art which is capable of producing those very works – classic, convincing, as rich in content as they are appropriately clothed in external form – which the masses are bound to demand, indeed are demanding, and which they created in those ages when they really dominated cultural life, such as in the great age of Athens or in renaissance Florence.
Kalinin expected proletarian art to come only from the proletariat. Conscious of the significance of such an art as an instrument of self-awareness of that class which is to save and organize mankind, F.I. Kalinin summoned the proletariat to become proficient in it as soon as possible. ‘The intellectuals may think with us,’ he goes on to say in the same article, ‘and if necessary for us – but feel for us they cannot ... The subconscious has its own autonomous existence,’ he explains. ‘The worker himself is dimly aware of the rustlings within his own soul but only in the moment of concentrated creative application can they assume sharp, clear-cut images at the level of his conscious mind.’
But if in this way a full-blooded art – an art not of the head but from the heart proceeding by way of the head – can be created by the proletariat itself, this by no means implies, in F.I. Kalinin’s view, that proletarian culture can be divorced from the cultural achievements of the past. And in that same most interesting article he goes on to say: ‘We have two tasks – one basically educational, consisting in the assimilation of the bourgeois inheritance, in defining our proletarian attitude towards it, and in assimilating the elements of proletarian culture already created by the workers’ movement. The other task must be the creation of conditions in which the creative powers of the proletariat can emerge in the act of artistic creation itself.’
Kalinin regarded both these tasks as absolutely essential. Speaking of the tasks of the workers’ club, to which he attributed great importance in the process of building socialism, he writes: ‘There may be those among us who look upon aesthetic needs as something superfluous and unnecessary, especially at such a time of violent struggle.; We regard this view as a dangerous illusion. Art is not simply a means of pleasure or embellishment, but is a means of organizing our lives of which we must make use as a weapon in the struggle. And we can only learn to make use of it when we have learned to understand it. Art, as figurative thinking, lies closest of all to the simple thought processes of ordinary people, who find it hard to understand abstract conceptual thinking. It is art that can most easily enter family life and influence the moulding of human psychology, freeing it from prejudice and thus preparing the workers for the forthcoming struggle for socialist ideals.
I do not think that anyone could express more clearly and precisely the significance of art for the proletariat in its great struggle.
In the article The Way of Proletarian Criticism F.I. Kalinin attempts to go further and to outline the actual content of proletarian art. ‘If the bourgeoisie,’ he says, ‘brushing aside the thought of the imminent collapse of the capitalist system, has devised for itself a world of pleasant day-dreams and fantasies, through the prism of which it wants to make us see all the events and phenomena of the world, then the proletariat must ruthlessly expose these mirages.’ And further: ‘In the search for the form and content of proletarian literature, its evaluation – proletarian criticism – must above all approach the matter deliberately and systematically.’
It is comrade Kalinin’s view, therefore, that the primary tasks that face proletarian literature are, firstly – the reflection of the contemporary revolutionary mood, secondly – the depiction of the psychology of the progressive worker, which is, in Kalinin’s words, complex and not fully susceptible to description by an outsider and is perhaps only expressible in a deeply-felt Iyricism. However, it was also obvious to comrade Kalinin (and that is why he welcomed the worker-poet Gastyev ) that such Iyricism will not be individualistic and that, reflecting its own innermost nature, the progressive proletariat will, to a greater degree than was possible with any other class, express what is common to all mankind, through the heart and mind of the advance-guard of humanity – the working class.
In the article Ideological Production F.I. Kalinin maintains that the psychology of the proletarian reflects the great era of collective machine production, initiated and considerably developed by capitalism and due henceforth to be developed even further.
In his austere phrasing, which breathes that unique spirit, understood only by a proletarian or by someone who has totally identified himself with the proletariat, comrade Kalinin says: ‘Contemporary imperialist capitalism reveals all the signs of impersonality and collectivism. It breeds, in consequence, a collectivist psychology in the industrial proletariat. This emergent structure of industrial society, in which everything is organized by strict calculation based on the demands of the total productive process, in which the worker is only a conscious, disciplined link in the collective chain- it is this form of organization which the proletariat must bring to his ideological and cultural work. By this means we shall contribute to the ultimate formation of a truly proletarian psychology which, though still confused by vestiges of bourgeois mentality, yet bears the marks of a nascent socialist psychology. We must break finally with disorganized spontaneity, replacing it with conscious organization, method and discipline. We too must build our organization on calculation; we must consolidate every crumb of individual experience which, when synthesized, will keep the process moving in the direction of further expansion and development. Thus the proletariat will create the conditions for the ultimate consolidation of socialism.’
This, in the most general terms, is the theory of proletarian art which Kalinin had begun to create. Sharply delimiting the aims of this art both from the current trends of bourgeois artists and from Futurism, he has tried to indicate its course: ‘We know,’ he wrote in one of his last articles, ‘that we must set ourselves one task. It is not easy, but that is no reason for us to evade it. Besides the elimination of the prejudices of bourgeois culture, which have penetrated fairly deeply into the proletariat, we still have to overcome the narrow-minded and inconsistent way of thinking of our worker comrades.’ At the same time he expresses a firm confidence that the new-born proletarian art will establish itself and occupy a high position in the general culture of mankind.
Naturally there will inevitably be a stiff fight against both bourgeois prejudices and against the ‘heresies’ of this embryonic proletarian culture. Although he has physically left the struggle, F.I. Kalinin is morally and intellectually with us and will always be our ally and our support.
F.I. Kalinin (not to be confused with M.I. Kalinin; see above, note p. 118) was one of Lunacharsky’s working-class protegés. When the occasional workman or autodidact of humble origins worked his way into the upper ranks of the Bolshevik Party, he was made a fuss of as evidence that this was a real workers’ Party. One such was Fyodor Ivanovich Kalinin, born the son of a peasant weaver in 1883. Politically active from 1901, when he was arrested and exiled, he led an armed peasant uprising in 1905, for which he was again arrested and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. On release he worked in the illegal underground for the Bolshevik Party for a time, then emigrated. Abroad he was taken up by Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, joined their ‘Forward’ group and attended their political training school on the isle of Capri – a venture financed by the literary earnings of Maxim Gorky. In 1917 Kalinin returned to Russia. Two years later Lunacharsky gave Kalinin an official post in the Commissariat of Education. Kalinin, who by then had made a certain name as a literary critic, became a leading theoretician of the ‘Proletcult’ (‘Proletarian Culture’) movement. He died in 1920, aged only forty-six. Since the suppression of Bogdanov’s heterodox ideology under Stalin, Kalinin’s writings have faded into complete obscurity.
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1. THE WORKER-POET GASTYEV: Alexei Kapitonovich Gastyev (1882–1941). One of the founders, with Bogdanov, of the ‘Proletcult’ movement. Gastyev belonged to a proletarian school of poets called ‘The Smithy’. He hymned the universe as ‘a huge factory’ and wrote an ode to the machine, ‘that Iron Messiah’. For all their self-conscious working-class postures, the ‘Smithy’ poets owed a heavy literary debt to the Symbolists.
Source: Marxist Internet Archive.