the LEF Program
VLADIMIR MAYAKOVSKY, et al.
The following three manifesto/essays--"What is LEF Fighting For?", "Whom Does LEF Tear Into?", and "Whom Does LEF Warn?"--appeared in the inaugural [March 1923] issue of the literary journal LEF, edited by poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
WHAT IS LEF FIGHTING FOR?The year 905. After it, reaction. Reaction settled in with autocracy and the double oppression of the merchant and the factory owner.
Reaction created art and life in its own image and according to its own taste. The art of the Symbolists (Bely1, Balmont2), mystics (Chulkov3, Gippius4), and sexual psychopaths (Rozanov5)--the life of the petty bourgeois and philistines.
The revolutionary parties smashed their lives; art rose up and smashed their tastes.
The first impressionistic flare up was in 1909 (the collection A Trap for Judges6).
The flames were fanned for three years.
Fanned into Futurism.
The first book of the union of Futurists was A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1914, Burliuk D.,7 Kamensky,8 Kruchenykh,9 Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov10).
The old order made a correct assessment of the laboratory work of these, tomorrow's dynamiters.
The Futurists were greeted with censorship-beheadings, prohibitions on performances, the barking and howling of the entire press.
The capitalist, of course, was never a patron of our whipping lines, our splinter-strokes.
Encircled by a parochial lifestyle, the Futurists were forced to engage in mockery with yellow blouses and painted faces.
These hardly "academic" methods of struggle, a presentiment of a future surge, immediately shook off the hanging-on aesthetes (Kandinsky,11 Jacks of Diamonds12, and others).
On the other hand, those who had nothing to lose clung to Futurism, or at least draped themselves in its name (Shershenevich13, Igor Severyanin14, the Donkey's Tail15, and others).
The Futurist movement, led by people of the arts who rarely delved into politics, sometimes painted itself in the colors of anarchy.
Alongside people of the future marched aesthetic rot, attempting to rejuvenate itself, dressing up in the leftist banner.
The war of 1914 was the first test of the public spirit.
The Russian Futurists definitively broke with the poetic imperialism of Marinetti16, having earlier booed him during his visit to Moscow (1913).
The Futurists , drowning out the saber-rattling of the war-singers (Gorodetsky,17 Gumilev,18 and others), were the first and only ones in Russian art to curse war and to fight against it using all the weapons of art ("War and the World" by Mayakovsky).
The war initiated a Futurist purge. (Members of the "Mezzanine"19 broke off, Severyanin went to Berlin).
The war commanded that we see the future revolution . ("A Cloud in Trousers"20)
The February Revolution deepened the purge, splitting Futurism into a "right" and a "left".
The rightists became echoes of the charms of democracy. (Their names are in "All Moscow".21)
The leftists, waiting for October, were christened "Bolsheviks of art" (Mayakovsky, Kamensky, Burliuk, Kruchenykh).
The first Productivist-Futurists (Brik,22 Arvatov23) and Constructivists (Rodchenko,24 Lavinsky25) joined this Futurist group.
The Futurists , from the very beginning, while still in the Kshesinsky Palace26, tried to reach agreement with groups of worker-writers (the future Proletkult), but these writers (judging by the look of things) thought that revolutionality was limited to agitational content alone; they remained complete reactionaries regarding form and were in no way able to join forces.
October cleaned up , shaped up, reorganized. Futurism became the left front of art. "We" became it.
October taught through work. By 25 October, we had already set to work.
Clearly, after seeing the backs of the fleeing intelligentsia, no one asked us much about our aesthetic creeds.
We created the then revolutionary "Izo", "Teo", "Muzo"27; we led the students in the storming of the academy.
Along with this organizational work, we produced the first real works of art of the October epoch (Tatlin28--Monument to the 3rd International; Meyerhold's29 staging of Mystery-Bouffe ;30 Kamensky's Stenka Razin ) We did not indulge in aesthetics, producing works for our own pride. The experience which we had attained was put to use creating agitational-artistic works which the revolution demanded (ROSTA31 posters, newspaper feuilletons, etc.)
To agitate for our ideas, we organized the newspaper Art of the Commune as well as a tour of factories and plants to stage discussions and readings.
Our ideas won over the workers' audience . The Vybog district organized the com-fut.32
Our artistic movement demonstrated its strength by organizing strongholds of left art throughout the RSFSR.
Parallel to this ran the work of our far eastern comrades (the journal Tvorchestvo [Creation])33, who theoretically confirmed the social inevitability of our artistic trend and our social union with October (Chuzhak, Aseev,35 Palmov,36 Tretyakov37). Tvorchestvo , subjected to all sorts of persecution, took upon itself the whole of the struggle for the new culture within the DVR38 and Siberia.
Gradually losing the belief that the Soviet government would exist for only two weeks, academicians--individually and in small groups-- began to knock on the door of the Narkomat [People's Commissariat of Education].
Not wanting to take the risk of using them in responsible work, the Soviet government offered to them--or, more accurately, to their European names--some out-of-the-way cultural and educational positions.
The persecution of left art began from these out-of-the-way places, coming to a brilliant culmination in the closing of Art of the Commune and so on.
The government, busy with the war fronts and economic collapse, did not involve itself much in the aesthetic squabbles, attempting only to keep things in the rear from getting too noisy and to reason with us out of respect for the "big names".
Now there is a respite from war and hunger. LEF must demonstrate the panorama of the art of the RSFSR , establish a perspective, and occupy a position worthy of us. The art of the RSFSR as of 1 February 1923:
I. Proletart. Part of it has degenerated into official writers, oppressed by bureaucratic language and the repetition of political ABC's. Another part of it has fallen under the influence of the academic manner, with only the name of their organization recalling October. The third and best part of it, is, after the pink Bely's, reeducating itself concerning our works and, we believe, will march alongside us in the future.
II. Official literature. In artistic theory, everyone has a personal opinion: Osinsky39 praises Akhmatova, Bukharin praises Pinkerton.40 In practice, journals feature only best-selling names.
III. The "Newest" literature (the Serapions,41 Pilnyak,42 etc.). Having adopted and diluted our devices, they spice them up with Symbolisms and respectfully and gravely adapt them to the light style of NEP-literature.43
IV. Change of Landmarks.44 From the west comes thundering an invasion of the most enlightened eminences. Aleksei Tolstoy45 is already polishing up the white horse of a complete collection of his works for a triumphal entrance into Moscow.
V. And, finally--violating the decorous perspective--in various corners are individual leftists . People and organizations (Inkhut,46 Vkhutemas,47 Meyerhold's Gitis,48 Opoyaz,49 and others). Some heroically attempt to till the inordinately difficult virgin soil by themselves; others are still cutting through the shackles of the past with their file-verses.
LEF must unite left forces into one. LEF must survey its ranks , tossing away anything from the past that has stuck to it. LEF must create a united front to blow up the old, to fight for the inclusion of the new culture.
We shall solve the problems of art not with a majority of votes of a mythical left front, existing to date only as an idea, but by the work and energy of our action committee, which year after year leads the work of the left, and of those who have always led it ideologically.
The Revolution has taught us much.
In the work of strengthening the achievements of the October Revolution and strengthening left art, LEF shall agitate art with the ideas of the commune , opening for art the road to tomorrow.
LEF shall agitate the masses with our art , creating within them an organized force.
LEF shall confirm our theories with active art , raising it to the highest level of skilled work.
LEF shall fight for the art-construction of life .
We do not pretend to a monopoly on the revolution in art. We shall make things clear through competition.
We believe that through the correctness of our agitation and the strength of the works we are producing we shall prove: we are on the true path to the future.
N. Aseev, B. Arbatov, O. Brik, B. Kushner, V. Mayakovsky, S. Tretyakov, N. Chuzhak.
WHOM DOES LEF TEAR INTO?The revolution has moved the theater of our critical operations.
We must revise our tactics .
"Toss Pushkin, Dostoeveky, and Tolstoy off the ship of modernity" was our slogan of 1912. (The foreword to "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.")
The classics had been nationalized.
The classics were honored as our only reading material.
The classics were considered unshakeable, absolute art.
The classics, with the bronze of their monuments and tradition of their schools, crushed out everything new.
Now for 150,000,000 people, the classics are an ordinary school book.
Now we can welcome even these books as books no worse or better than others, using them to help teach the illiterate. In our appraisal of them we just have to establish the correct historical perspective.
But we , with all our strength, shall fight against the transfer of the working methods of the dead to today's art . We shall fight against imaginary clarity; and, because of the proximity to us of the venerable old ones, against the presentation of dusty classical truths in books, disguised as young and rejuvenating.
Previously, we fought against praise, against praise from the bourgeois aesthetes and critics. "With indignation we pushed away from our brow the garland of cheap fame made out of bathhouse switches."50
Now, we joyfully accept the far-from-cheap fame which follows from the contemporaneity of October.
But we shall strike on both sides:
those who with the evil intention of an ideological restoration, ascribe to the old academic junk an effective role in today's world,
those who preach a classless, universal art,
those who replace the dialectics of a work of art with the metaphysics of prophecy and priesthood.
We shall strike on one side, the aesthetic side:
those who, because of ignorance arising from a specialization in only politics, pass off traditions inherited from their great-grandmothers as the will of the people,
those who view the extremely difficult work of art as merely their vacation recreation,
those who replace the inevitable dictatorship of taste with an institutional slogan of general, elementary clarity,
those who leave a loophole in art for idealistic outpourings about eternity and the soul.
Our previous slogan: "To stand on the mound of the word "We" amidst the sea of whistles and outrage".51
Now we await only the acknowledgement of the truth of our aesthetic work so that we can joyfully dissolve the small "we" of art in the great "we" of communism.
But we shall purge from our old "we":
all those attempting to turn the revolution of art--a part of the overall will of October--into an Oscar Wilde-like self-indulgence in aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics, in revolt for the sake of revolt; from those who take from the aesthetic revolution only a superficial appearance of casual means of struggle,
those who elevate separate stages of our struggle into a new canon and model,
those who, diluting our slogans of yesterday, attempt to sugar-coat themselves as defenders of already ageing innovation, finding comfortable café stalls for their tame Pegasuses,52
those who, lagging in the rear, are permanently five years behind, gathering dried berries of rejuvenated academism from the flowers which we have thrown away.
We fought with the old way of life.
We shall fight against the remnants of this way of life in today's society .
We'll fight against those who replaced the poetry of their own houses with the poetry of their own house-committees.
Before, we fought the bulls of the bourgeoisie. We gave shock with yellow blouses and painted faces.
Now we are fighting the victims of these bulls in our Soviet society.
Our weapons--example, agitation, propaganda .
WHOM DOES LEF WARN?This is for us.
Comrades in LEF!
We know: we, the left masters, we are the best workers in contemporary art.
Prior to the revolution we piled up the most exact blueprints, the most expert theorems, the most cunning formulas for the forms of the new art.
It is clear: the slippery, globe-shaped belly of the bourgeoisie was a bad site for building.
In the revolution we amassed a multitude of truths, we studied life, we received assignments for the most real construction for future ages.
Earth shaken by the rumble of war and revolution is a difficult soil for grandiose constructions. We temporarily put our formulas away in folders, helping the days of revolution to grow stronger.
Now there is no globe of the bourgeois belly.
Sweeping away the old junk with the revolution, we have cleared the ground for the construction of art.
There are no earthquakes.
Cemented with blood, the USSR stands firm.
It is time to undertake the great.
The seriousness of our relation to ourselves is the only firm foundation for our work .
Your services in art are great: but don't think that you can live out your lives on the interest from yesterday's revolutionality. By your work today, demonstrate that your explosion is not the desperate howl of a wounded intelligentsia, but a battle--work shoulder to shoulder with all who are striving for communism.
Constructivists! Fear becoming the next aesthetic school. Constructivism as an art alone is zero. The question is about the very existence of art. Constructivism must become the highest formalistic engineering of all life. Constructivism in the production of shepherd pastorals is nonsense.
Our ideas must be developed on the things of today.
Fear becoming isolated handicraftsmen.
While teaching the workers, learn from the worker. Dictating aesthetic orders to the factory from your rooms, you become merely customers.
Your school is the factory.
The formal method is the key to the study of art. Every flea-line must be taken into account. But beware of catching fleas in a vacuum. Only along with a sociologic study of art will your work be not only interesting, but necessary.
Beware of giving out accidental distortions of half-educated people as innovation, as the latest shout of art. The innovation of dilettantes is a locomotive on chicken legs.
Only in mastery is there the right to toss out the old.
Moving from theory to practice, think about mastery and professional qualification.
The hack work of the young who have the strength to produce great things is even more repulsive than the hack work of feeble academics.
Masters and apprentices of Lef!
The question of our existence is being decided.
The greatest idea will die if we don't give it form skillfully.
The most artful forms will remain black threads in the black night, will incite only the vexation and irritation of those who trip on them if we don't apply them to the shaping of the current day, the day of the revolution.
Lef is on guard.
Lef is the defense of all creators.
Lef is on guard.
Lef rejects all those frozen in time , all aesthetes, all acquisitionists .54
1Andrei Bely [1880-1938]. Symbolist poet, writer, and theosophist. Author of the influential novel St. Petersburg. Follower of the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolph Steiner .
2Konstantin Balmont [1867-1942]. Lyric poet, translator, and novelist. Early influence on the Symbolists.
3Georgy Chulkov [1879-1939]. Minor symbolist writer, originator of the doctrine of "mystical anarchism".
4Zinaida Gippius [1869-1945]. Decadent poet who maintained "Art should materialize only the spiritiual."
5Vasily Rozanov [1856-1919]. Writer and philosopher known for his essay The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor by F.M. Dostoevsky and for his contention that spiritual values have their roots in sexuality.
6A Trap for Judges [Sadok sudei]. A vaguely Futurist almanac published by the Burliuk brothers, Khlebnikov, and Kamensky.
7David Burliuk [1882-1967]. Poet and painter credited as discovering and cultivating Mayakovsky's talent.
8Vasily Kamensky [1884-1961] Futurist and transrationalist [zaum] poet and writer. Member of Burliuk's Hylaea group.
9Aleksei Kruchenykh [1886-1969]. Futurist and transrationalist poet and literary theorist.
10Velimir Khlebnikov [1885-1922]. Poet and poetic theorist. One of the primary practicioners of zaum writing.
11Vasily Kandinsky [1866-1944]. Avant-garde painter.
12Jack of Diamonds. Group of avant-garde painters, including M. Larionov, N. Goncharova, D. Burliuk, V. Kandinsky, P. Konchalovsky, V. Tatlin, and others.
13Vadim Shershenevich [1893-1942]. Futurist poet, founder of the "Mezzanine of Poetry" group. In 1919, he turned from Futurism to Imagism.
14Igor Severyanin [1887-1941]. Poet noted for his complex verbal rhythmics. Called "Pushkin's neighbor" by Mayakovsky.
15Donkey's Tail. Group of avant-garde painters who broke off from the Jack of Diamonds in December 1911. Members included M. Larionov, N. Goncharova, K. Malevich, and V. Tatlin.
16Filippo Tommaso Marinetti [1876-1944]. French-Italian writer, viewed as the founder of Futurism, who visited Russia in 1914 (not 1913).
17Sergei Gorodetsky [1884-1967]. Poet and co-founder of the Poets' Guild and the Acmeist movement.
18Nikolai Gumilev [1886-1921]. Acmeist poet and critic.
19Mezzanine of Poetry. A rival Futurist faction.
20"A Cloud in Trousers." Poem by Mayakovsky.
21"All Moscow." Listing of addresses of all Moscovites.
22Osip Brik [1888-1945]. Literary theorists and playwrite. Cofounder of LEF. Husband of Lili Brik, Mayakovsky's lover.
23Boris Arvatov [1896-1940]. Futurist critic and theorist. One of the founders of LEF.
24Aleksandr Rodchenko [1891-1956]. Constructivist artist, sculptor, and photographer.
25Anton Lavinsky [1863-1968]. Constructivist artist and member of LEF. Worked with Mayakovsky at ROSTA and with Rodchenko.
26Kshesinsky Palace. Bolshevik headquarters prior to the October Revolution.
27Izo, Teo, Muzo. Divisions for the Figurative, Theatrical, and Musical arts, respectively.
28Vladimir Tatlin [1885-1953]. Constructivist painter and architect.
29Vsevolod Meyerhold. [1874-1940?]. Avant-garde theater producer and director.
30Mystery-Bouffe. Play by Mayakovsky (1918) showing the conquest of the "Clean" (bourgeois) by the "Unclean" (proletariat)
31ROSTA. The State Telegraph Agency, for which Mayakovsky produced hundreds of propaganda and educational posters with catchy verse captions.
32Com-Fut. Committee of Futurist Communists.
33Tvorchestvo [Creation]. Futurist group and journal formed in Vladivostok in 1918.
34Nikolai Chuzhak [1876-1937. Futurist theoretician and editor. Helped formulate the Futurist concepts of life-building art and literature of fact.
35Nikolai Aseev [1889-1963]. Member of the Centrifuge group before converting to Cubo-Futurism. Proponent of "thingness", producing versified journalism and propaganda. Several of his poems were turned into popular songs.
36Palmov. Identification unclear.
37Sergei Tretyakov [1892-1939]. Poet and playwrite, former member of the Mezzanine of Poetry. Collaborated with Burliuk, Eisenstein, Meyerhold, and Rodchenko.
38DVR. Republic of the Far East.
39N. Osinsky [1887-1938]. Politician and economist. Editor and journalist for Pravda.
40Pinkerton. Referring to the pulp detective novels featuring the character of Nat Pinkerton.
41Seraption Brothers. Group of independent writers [Fedin, Kaverin, Zoshchekno, and others] heavily influenced by Evgeny Zamyatin.
42Boris Pilnyak [1894-1941]. Independent writer. Author of The Naked Year and The Volga Falls Into the Caspian Sea.
43New Economic Policy [NEP]. Economic policy introduced in 1921 which temporarily reintroduced some capitalist-style market mechanisms in the Soviet economy.
44Change of Landmarks [Smena vekh] Title of a collection of essays and a movement among certain émigré writers urging a cessation in their struggle against the Bolsheviks and the beginning of collaboration with them instead.
45Aleksei Tolstoy [1883-1945]. Realist and science fiction writer, born into a family of impoverished nobility. He originally fled Russia after the Revolution, but returned in 1923.
46Inkhut. Institute for Artistic Culture.
47Vukhutemas. Higher Artistic-Technical Workshops.
48Gitis. State Institute of Theatrical Art.
49Opoyaz. Association for the Study of Poetic Language.
50From "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste."
52Referring to the Stable of Pegasus, a café frequented by Imagists.
53Members of the Association for the Study of Poetic Language. Prominent members included V. Shklovski, O. Brik, and R. Yakobson.
Russian text from: LEF, No. 1 (1923).
Translated by: Eric Konkol