Cultural promotion and the Internationals

12 August, 2020 · History

March 1919 poster published by the Emergency Commission for the Elimination of Illiteracy of the RSFSR. Under the motto of the International ("Workers of the world, unite!"), the text quotes a famous verse by Pushkin: "Long live the light! Hide the darkness!

Cultural associations, popular universities, workers’ libraries… From the beginning of the movement for workers’ emancipation, cultural diffusion played a central role in the construction of a class fabric. The workers’ societies first and the People’s Houses later, made cultural diffusion a driving force of their work: from pure and simple literacy to the creation of schools, passing through an infinity of educational activities, conferences, reading groups and libraries. However, at least two issues emerge irremediably.

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Why should we disseminate the great artistic creations of the past if they are no more than the expression of the ideology of the dominant classes of different periods? Or at least, why the past Internationals considered it so important if in the end the message and values that these works propgate end up reinforcing the values of a class society. There does not seem to be anything very liberating on the menu to begin with. To sum it up in a nutshell: if we go to the ancient classics we will find the values of a slave society, if we go to those of feudalism we will find those of a landlord society based on pedigree, the acceptance of class status and faith; and in the great artistic creations of capitalism we will sooner or later come across the religion of the commodity, the nation and the sensitivities that they both foster.


In terms of general cultural training, another thing that stands out is the rejection of state education. Marx for example violently attacks the first program of the German social democracy for demanding popular education by the state. On the contrary, he claims that it is a matter of removing all influence from the government and the Church on the school, and adds: We cannot get away with the clumsy subterfuge of speaking about a “future state”, we have already seen what these words mean. These words meant a democratic republic, that is, a bourgeois state in the style of those that existed in Switzerland or the United States. In other words, the internationalists of the time, like Marx, were not only afraid of the effect of public education under autocratic-feudal systems such as the German or Russian ones, they rejected the interference of the state in the education of the working class also in the democracies in which capitalism was developing free of feudal filth. Why? Did the working class schools intend to make up for the shortcomings caused by a supposed abandonment of the education of the working classes by the state, as we are told today, or was it something else? The data suggest the latter: in Germany, illiteracy disappeared almost completely between the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the First World War (1914) precisely because of the effect of the regime’s educational laws.

The view on art

“Indigenous” activists who, as the poster shows, do not use the local New Mexico dialect, vandalize a statue of the region’s conquistador.

During these months, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and Great Britain gave free rein to the iconoclasm of the Anglo-Saxon petty bourgeoisie. Suddenly Columbus, the leaders of American independence or the forerunners of early British capitalism were condemned in image. Of course it was a moral condemnation. It’s impossible to make an artistic judgment that isn’t so. The question is what morality it served.

All morality projects a form of future and therefore a certain program that in the end aligns with class interests and visions. […] The most obvious example is the leftist morality we all know. […] An air of nostalgia, of longing for the lost paradise, permeates its propaganda, which is at once mellow and resentful. The supposed collectivism of the Inca Tahuantinsuyo; the ecological balance of the indigenous peoples; the Mexico of the missions before the US conquest; the old patriarchal relations in India or among the Basques… everything that was once swept away directly by capitalism or in order to make it possible, takes on inevitable idyllic, pastoral and communal overtones that aggravate the affront of a supposedly reactionary system, however cruel, from day one.

But looking at it from the future produces a very different result. The bloody conquests that made the world market possible, from America to India, however atrocious and violent their means, appear – seen from the communist perspective – as historically necessary moments in the construction of the conditions that make a liberated human society possible for the first time, the expansionism of the young and voracious American capitalism on the prairies occupied by the indigenous nations, the Russian Alaska and half of Mexico were necessary milestones of the fantastic development of the productive capacities that is the great legacy of capitalism […].

The communists, these party spoilers, aspire to a reunified humanity and see in the dissolution of the old pre-capitalist identities into the “uprooted” proletariat, a historic step forward. While capitalism helped humanity to come closer to forming a universal economic metabolism and a universal class, what was relevant for the future was not the disappearance of the artisan, the indigenous person or the independent peasant… but rather that they became – or were placed in the position of becoming – proletarians. For the communist, all these excesses and conquests are but moments of the creation of the proletariat as a universal class by rising capitalism. […] Communist morality gives light to what surrounds us, gives meaning and allows us to look at the history of our species with materialistic pride, free from all sentimentalism. A history which, broadly speaking, is nothing but the contradictory, conflicting and terrible, often bloody, account of the progress of the species towards its liberation, towards its reunification in a single human community not fractured by class divisions or enslaved by scarcity.

What is communist morality?

Of course, if this reading applied to the capitalism the class was fighting against, all the more so to the works of art of an earlier mode of production. The Communards who protected Notre Dame or the revolutionaries who saved the Orthodox cathedrals in the middle of the civil war did not see in them the reaction but a legacy.

1920s poster in the middle of the civil war by Kupreyanov supervised by Lenin: “Citizens, preserve the works of art”

Gothic churches were not built suddenly, under the impulse of a religious inspiration. The construction of the Cologne cathedral, its architecture and its sculpture, summarize all the architectural experience of Humanity since the time of the cavemen, and all the elements of this experience are combined in a new style that expresses the culture of its time, that is, in short, the social structure and the technique of the moment.

In a very striking way, Trotsky, who discusses in that text with those who advocate a ‘proletarian culture’, reminds them that:

All our current economic and cultural activity is nothing but a reorganization of our team between two battles and two campaigns. The decisive battles are still before us and there are still others on the horizon. The days we are living are not yet those of a new culture, they are at the most, at the threshold of that era. We must first officially take possession of the most important elements of the old culture, so that they can at least serve as a basis on which we can move towards the new culture. This becomes very clear if the problem is approached, as it should be, on an international scale.

“Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art”, LD Trotsky, 1923

First two ideas

Library of the People’s House. Madrid.

So we have two first points of support to understand the importance that internationalists gave to cultural dissemination.


The critique of culture and, in general, of the historical facts and products made by internationalists is not a utopian critique. They do not take the direct consequences of a historical fact or the context of an artistic work and compare them with the ideal society of tomorrow by asking what it would mean at that time. If we simply compare the past of the species with the future we are fighting for every past thing would be reactionary, because obviously no expression of domination and exploitation would be morally acceptable in a liberated society. And all human history since the end of primitive communism is the history of exploitation and class struggle. Iconoclasm would be the only possible attitude.

But the point is not to ask whether a future society would express itself socially, technically and morally by building Gothic cathedrals or writing Shakespeare’s plays, including their anti-Semitism and racism. It is a matter, in the first place, of historical materialism, of stripping the interpretation of these works of nationalist fog, of the judgment of a utopian and timeless morality, and rediscovering them for what they meant and expressed in the becoming of our species. And if we do that the result is remarkably different. As is the historical judgment on the conquest of America by Castile, the invasion of Mexico by the United States or that of India by the British Empire. Because what appears then is the story in leaps and bounds, covered in mud and blood, of the development of the transformative capacities of humanity, that is, progress. There are also long periods of decadence in this development of each mode of production. The culture and the artistic works that during those periods are expressed by the dominant classes are hardly remembered, almost never considered a legacy beyond the narrowest chauvinism, in the same way that surely in a few centuries very few people will remember or have a major interest in the literature or the architecture of the current decades. The works we remember today from feudal decadence are not the expression of the nobility, but of the rise of the bourgeoisie and its values.


The perspective of a new culture is not that of a clean slate. We workers, as an exploited and dominated class, cannot expect to gain a place within class society from which to build a culture. As long as there are wage workers, that is, as long as there is a modern, capitalist, mercantile society, even if the workers destroy the political structure of the present society and raise their own state forms to move from the dictatorship of profit to the dictatorship of universal human needs, nothing like a proletarian culture is possible. There can be a revolutionary culture, in no way exclusive to workers, and there will certainly be a renewal of culture, because as Lunacharsky pointed out the proletariat is capable of renewing the culture of the human race, but in a deep-rooted connection with the previous culture and in dependence on it.

But… what is the point?

«Books, please, about all fields of knowledge», Rodchenko 1924

One question remains, however, and it is not an insignificant one. The interpretation of the works of art made by the militants of the Internationals allowed them to see them, to claim them and to consider them a legacy that the workers had to reappropriate in order to renew the culture during the transition from the class cultures that have existed until now towards a true universal human culture. But, if the task remained ahead, entrusted to the historical period of transition in which capitalist relations would be globally dismantled… Why the rush? Why was it considered such an important task for a worker to know great literature, to learn to criticize a painting or to understand and enjoy opera, that genre which had been the soundtrack of the bourgeois revolution?

In every movement of a revolutionary class, the end, the goal, and its maximum capabilities are in reality present already from the beginning in the form of necessity and therefore, at least, in embryonic form. All the more so in the first universal class of human history. This is what Marx and Engels recognized in 1846 when they said that we call communism the real movement that abolishes and surpasses the present state of things. Or when Rosa Luxemburg, right up to her last speech, objected strongly to the separation of the immediate, so-called minimalist slogans, formulated for the political and economic struggle, from the socialist objective formulated as a maximum programme. Every slogan of struggle, every political expression of the workers is found in the tension, in transition, between their situation and their needs, between their present as an exploited class by definition and the disappearance of the class system to which even its most basic expressions tend. A different matter is what range each historical stage and each concrete moment imposes between one and the other.

And this also applies to the cultural tasks. The militants of the Internationals understood that the renewal of culture was not something that could be left for the day when workers would take power as one postpones a domestic reform in the hope of receiving an extraordinary payment. On the contrary, the renewal of culture was for them the result of a long process of reappropriation and criticism of the historical and artistic legacy by the militant proletariat. A re-appropriation whose first objective was to transform the workers themselves, as the aims of the People’ s Houses stressed, by eroding the alienating effects of the division of labor and broadening their sensibilities by opening them up to new vital dimensions. When Engels wrote in the Anti-Dühring (1878) that proletarian morality presents the future in the transformation of the present, he had in mind a vision of communism as a society of abundance in which the overcoming of a fractured society also puts an end to lives fractured and constrained by the division of labor. The reference to artistic creation is immediate.

The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in unique individuals and the consequent suppression of these talents in the great majority is a consequence of the division of labor (…) in any case, in a communist organization of society the inclusion of the artist in the local and national limitation, which responds purely and solely to the division of labor, and the inclusion of the individual in this particular art disappears, so that there are only painters, sculptors, etc disappears. And already the name itself expresses quite eloquently the limitation of his professional development and his subordination to the division of labor. In a communist society, there will be no painters, but at most men who, among other things, are also engaged in painting.

Marx and Engels. The German Ideology, 1846

The commitment and effort put into cultural dissemination was thus very different from that of the associations and state institutions dedicated then and now to promoting the knowledge and consumption of cultural objects. It was above all of a moral nature. It expressed the immediate dimension of communism’s perspective of abundance as the liberation of knowledge and the free development of human experience and sensibility.

In a future article we will answer the second question with which we opened this article: Why and on what terms did the past Internationals reject state schools?

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