LEF and MARXISM
Review of a Debate between
Supporters and Opponents
of Mayakovsky's LEF
Under this heading ["LEF and Marxism"] a debate was held on 3 July 1923 in the Conservatory Maly Hall, under the chairmanship of A.V. Lunacharsky; participating for LEF were Brik, Tretyakov, Kruchenykh and Levidov; speaking for the opposition were comrades Meshcheryakov, Mstislavsky, Margolin, Loginov, and also from among the audience comrades Rodov, Averbakh and Sudakov. The debate took place amidst an extraordinary confluence of the public. The influx of youth was so great that after the speech of A.V. Lunacharsky it was necessary to take a break and address the auditorium with exactly these words: "now we are taking a small break in light of the fact that 600 students are demanding entrance into the hall and we can let in only 100."
In place of B. Arvatov, who had fallen ill, an impromptu opening statement was delivered by O. Brik, commenting mainly on the paths which led Russian Futurism to Lef. O. Brik outlined the boundaries of Lef, which had taken up the so-called zaum ("trans-sense") and contentlessness only as a laboratory of form but had broken with zaum and contentlessness in its claim to be an end in itself. On the other hand, Lef disassociated itself from attempts to create a new art using old formal methods.
Speaking after comrade Brik, the Marxist opponents revealed such disagreement among themselves on the questions of the possibility of the existence of a proletarian culture that A.V. Lunacharsky, in his closing statement, had to make them see reason and somehow connect things up. Comrade Meshcheryakov denied the very possibility of the existence of a proletarian culture, suggesting that art is "writing verses" and "trifles" which the proletariat doesn't have time for. As for comrade Loginov, his objections to Lef came down to three basic, unfounded assertions: Lef is idiocy; Lef is sexual (!) bourgeois mannerisms; and Lef is incomprehensible and unnecessary to the proletariat.
In truth we must note that the auditorium turned out to be somewhat more discerning on these questions than were the orators and they interrupted these baseless pronouncements many times with shouts, noise, and even whistles.
With the non-Marxist opponents things were even worse.
Margolin, apparently, learned his speech beforehand, written in the style of Cicero as a direct address to the Lef members.
"You of Lef..." he started, turning to the Lef members; but the indignant public demanded that he speak to the hall. Margolin couldn't extricate himself from his "Oh, you who..." construction and just made a muddle out of Cicero. His departure from the podium was accompanied with appropriate shouts from the delighted public.
Following him, Lef speaker Levidov, giving a completely justified response to Margolin's observation, "What is Lef striving for if everything has already been achieved", said, "Comrade Margolin is still not finished off." [pun on the Russian ????? - 'achieved' and 'finished off'--Trans.]
The second non-Marxist, Mstislavsky, spoke angrily and cursed Lef as an empty nothing; moreover, he cursed so energetically that it was clear by this energy alone that the words "empty nothing" were Mistislavsky's own empty words. In addition to this wrath was another series of highly unfounded but sufficiently bombastic assertions such as: the Revolution is simple; Revolution is affirmation, therefore it is creation. This all smelled of good old narodnik metaphysics, but there was no real analysis of the essence of Lef.
Levidov responded to the three M's--comrades Meshcheryakov, Margolin, and Mstislavsky--and stressed that 1) the principal of epater les bourgeois has not lost its vitality even today; 2) that you can't use as an argument against Lef the fact that NEP-men don't buy the journal (students in the workers' schools don't have the means to buy it); and 3) that you can't be a revolutionary from 10 to 4 and a philistine from 4 to 10, which applies to many who demonstrate extreme opportunism in art but who remain excellent revolutionaries in politics and economics.
Tretyakov, noting the basic lines of Lef's advancement said that:
1) The revolution, carrying out a fundamental social and economic restructuring, cannot bypass such an important outpost of culture, understood in the sense of creating weapons, as art.
2) The uncontrolled accumulation by bourgeois society of items of value (including cultural items) has the tendency, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, to turn into organized production.
3) Resistance to new aesthetic tastes is the resistance of the established tastes of the bourgeois school which fed us on the classics. Many people have too thrifty a relation to that complex of tastes which is called the individual, "I", name, patronymic, and family name.
4) Lef is not only a literary group. Lef is everywhere where the stagnation of life, traditions, habits, and tastes are being overcome; the work of the Central Institute of Labor and other training and standardization establishments is also Lef.
5) Lef is accused of not reflecting reality. This is understandable, for Lef creates literary works which serve reality. Lef thinks that the recording of reality by the methods of the craftsman-poet and artist has outlived its time. We have more exact methods of recording--photography, cinema, the protocol, phonograph, etc.
6) Why doesn't Lef provide "types" of the current day? Why doesn't it record the "heroes" of our time?
Types were perceived by writers of bourgeois society as the result of the uncontrolled process of the crystallization of characters under the pressure of a certain social milieu. Rather than spontaneously arising types, Lef is more interested in models, "standards" of people taken in this or that industrial setting.
What kind of interest can Lef have in individual heroes when the task of every industrial collective is to find and celebrate them in their own midst (for example, heroes of labor)?
7) The basic work of the literary Lef in the plan of life-building is to be a factory of language, which, until this point, has developed spontaneously and freely. To study its properties and, by using it in life, to change it, adjusting it as much as possible to the demands of the moment. The value of the practitioners of zaum is precisely in this sphere--they were Lef's word-analysis and word-testing laboratory.
8) As for the assimilation of zaum--it is strange to hear reproaches concerning incomprehensibility from people who sing zaum song choruses and find nothing strange in that.
9) Work on language is the first half of the task Lef has set for itself. Adjusting the word to the tasks of communist agitation is the second half. It's laughable to talk about objective representation in a time of sharpening class conflicts, in a time of class war. Here we must take into account one additional component of the so-called creative process--specifically, the audience, whom the words are to affect. The reckoning of the audience instead of the blind work of an artist for the market is an essential principle of Lef. Here we are really approaching an understanding of the social command.
10) Only by building practical, utilitarian works necessary for the solution of concrete problems of the current day will the poet--as a result of how he will be viewed in the historic perspective--be able to create a series of works better reflecting his reality than any deliberate "reflection".
Rodov and Averbakh, while on one hand sharply attacking Lef for its "imperialist" birth and protesting against the practitioners of zaum (Averbakh, among other things, attempts to smash the zaum practitioners with Demyan Bedny), recognize the great significance of the non-zaum wing of Lef for the revolution. Rodov, answering Meshcheryakov's accusation that Lef books don't sell out, noted, "Of course Khodasevich has five thousand bourgeois who buy his book and put it unopened on the table. But the proletarian writer writes for the students in the workers' institutes, for the worker who perhaps doesn't have this book, a book which hundreds are waiting in line to borrow. Is this proletarian culture or not?"
From among the audience, the speech of the worker and workers' institute student Sudakov elicited great interest. He said, "It is necessary to create a new young culture in order to bury the bourgeois culture." "I have the impression that, more than anyone else, the Futurists and LEFists are fighting against and smashing bourgeois culture." "It feels like the LEFists are getting closer to mass culture; it feels like something close, purely from everyday life, building a newly designed road." The works of the LEFists, Sudakov said, "you read and don't understand, but when I read through Mayakovsky and Levidov and the prologue to Mystery-Bouffe, when I finally felt that I had gotten it, it felt like I had really accomplished something."
His speech was interrupted with applause, shouts, and ovations.
Someone from the audience acrimoniously shouted to Sudakov, "Shoemaker, go sew your shoes," to which Sudakov answered, "I'll sew shoes and say here what I have to."
In his closing remarks, comrade Lunacharsky, expressing solidarity with the point of view of comrade Averbakh, went to great lengths to separate himself from the speeches of the comrades who sharply denied proletarian culture. His reproach to comrade Meshcheryakov that culture is not "keeping busy with trifles" and not "writing verses" was correct. "And building a government? Writing laws--is this not culture?" said comrade Lunacharsky.
Further, comrade Lunacharsky defended the "legacy" left to us by bourgeois culture and art, warning against "a fascination with productivism". He opposed the mechanization introduced into art by Tretyakov; he spoke about form and content, subject, and subjectlessness, and finally about the artistic honesty which, in large portion, is found in Mayakovsky, but which, "unfortunately, is overpowered by the extreme affectation of form", which could lead one to think that there is "no depth of feeling" behind it.
Further, observing a cult of the machine in Lef, comrade Lunacharsky asserted that mechanization is characteristic of industrial culture, but not proletarian culture, and in light of this he lashed out, on one had, against comrade Chuzhak (because of his definition of art as life-building) and, on the other hand, against comrade Meyerhold for his supposed eccentricity, which, in the opinion of comrade Lunacharsky, is a product of the parasitism of the the bourgeois upper crust.
Proposing "striving for the beautiful", "free fantasy" and "free striving for the ideal" as justification for art, comrade Lunacharsky, all the same, came to the conclusion that the industrialism, the feel for the city and the machine, and the sense of the rhythm of the new economy as expressed by Lef carry within them "great pluses and are to a certain degree achievements."
The finish of comrade Lunacharsky's speech was a fatherly warning to the young not to get carried away with Lef; this fascination, in his words, arises because "we are leaving behind world culture, from whom we should learn", but, essentially, there's no one left to learn from.
It is regrettable that the time for the debate ran out, because Lef was denied the opportunity to endorse such an unexpected assertion regarding the abandoned world culture as extremely valuable and in line with the views of Lef.
Translated by: Eric Konkol
Russian text from Lef No. 4 (August-December 1923), 1924.
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