Monday, March 05, 2018

Leon Trotsky's vision of communism

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Trotsky wrote the series of articles published as "Literature and Revolution" in 1924, two years after the end of the ruinous civil war and during the earliest phase of the 'New Economic Policy'. At that time he still occupied the position of Commissar of War, the head of the Red Army.

Most of the early chapters are assessments of (often obscure) contemporary artists but towards the end Trotsky widens his scope and considers the nature of art in class societies and its future under socialism. Here is the final section from Chapter Eight, Revolutionary and Socialist Art.
"Having rationalized his economic system, that is, having saturated it with consciousness and planfulness, man will not leave a trace of the present stagnant and worm-eaten domestic life. The care for food and education, which lies like a millstone on the present-day family, will be removed, and will become the subject of social initiative and of an endless collective creativeness.

Woman will at last free herself from her semi-servile condition.

Side by side with technique, education, in the broad sense of the psychophysical molding of new generations, will take its place as the crown of social thinking. Powerful “parties” will form themselves around pedagogic systems. Experiments in social education and an emulation of different methods will take place to a degree which has not been dreamed of before. Communist life will not be formed blindly, like coral islands, but will be built consciously, will be tested by thought, will be directed and corrected.

Life will cease to be elemental and for this reason stagnant. Man, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build people's’ palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy, and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements.

Life in the future will not be monotonous.

More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness, and economy in his work, his walk, and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training.

This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. [Recall that the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' in Marxist theory is the rule by the masses which secures the revolution against its class enemies. It does not mean Stalin!].

The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. [Marx and Engels talked about the socialised, collectivised family (in The Communist Manifesto) - not one of their better ideas. Trotsky here seems more circumspect.]

Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the subsoil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? [Trotsky was supportive of the work of Freud - p. 182].

The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings, and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid, and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical self education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

I think Trotsky is here making illustrative, but realistic projections of his futuristic views. Many of these ideas have also been addressed by science-fiction writers subsequently; Trotsky would have nodded appreciatively at current genomic research, I'm sure. Personally I'm a supporter of most of his vision.

One needs to remind oneself that Russia in 1924 was economically ruined. Trotsky, like the other Bolshevik leaders, was expecting revolution in Western Europe to save the infant soviet regime (undoubtedly very large and sustained transfer payments would have been needed - as was the case from West into East Germany after reunification).

Those revolutions never occurred, the soviet dream was lost. But the vision is worth pondering: how much of it is actually compatible with future developments within capitalism?


  1. With these references to "Superman" I had not expected a link between Trotsky and Nietzsche at the ideas level.

    No doubt Trotsky has had bad press since he was unpopular in the West as well as in the later Soviet Union.

  2. Yes, the Nietzsche-like reference is intriguing: I have no idea what Trotsky thought of Nietzsche. Trotsky's objective situation in 1924 was not especially conducive to evidence-based speculation on the nature of communism (we would be better placed today) so his views are really diagnostic of extrapolation within the classic Marxist tradition. From almost one hundred years further on the results look rather impressive.


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