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Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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The Art of the October Revolution - Agitprop

As part of our series of articles throughout this month commemorating the Russian Revolution of Ocober 1917, Fatima Uygun explores the liberatory impulse that the October revolution gave to art, and the use of agitprop under the Bolsheviks. 

 

Walter Benjamin, a Marxist cultural theoretician wrote, "what characterises revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode". There is no better example of this than the workers and artists involved in, and inspired by, the Russian Revolution of 1917.

For the first time in human history a country's working class had defeated its ruling class, and created the beginnings of a new society based on peace, human solidarity, and on meeting the needs of the many. We rightly celebrate the achievements of the Russian of equality, national liberation, sexual liberation, and end to war and tyranny. But we should also celebrate the art it produced as being of one of the most innovative periods in the history of the arts and, I would argue, in the history of humanity.

Like never before, art and creativity exploded in all aspects of Russian life. Trotsky said of 1917, "The revolution is, in the first place, an awakening of human personality in the masses — who were supposed to possess no personality..." People began to actively building a new world in which the arts played a major role. Musical experimentalism broke through the barriers of harmony, overflowed into jazz and created orchestras without conductors. In the visual arts, most artists rejected the concept of artistic subjectivity, they broke painting down to its DNA, and if one form of art wasn't expressive enough then they planned monuments, public art and workers' lounges, clothes, ceramics, theatre, dance. New forms for the new world. Most of all, they attempted to fuse art and everyday life.

Many artists were politicised by the war and came into conflict with both the decaying Tsarist regime and the emerging bourgeois. They echoed the pre-revolution movements in Europe, cubism, futurism and expressionism. But when the revolution came these groups wholeheartedly embraced the February and October revolutions.

The name given to a wide group of artists who allied themselves to the revolution was the Russian Avant Garde and inlcuded the poet Mayakovsky, visual artist Malevich, along with constructivists Rodchenko, Popova, Stepanova, and Nathan Altman, theatre worker Meyerhold and the painter/architect Tatlin.

As soon as the revolution erupted artists like El Lissitsky rushed to join the Committee for Art set up by the Soldiers' Deputies, to begin undertaking effective propaganda work to build the achievements and defend the revolution.

They all embraced the workers' revolution of October as the liberator of art. And, of course, like with any struggle enormous debates took place about the nature of revolutionary art. What was the relation between art and life? Should artists set out to construct a workers' art or was there the need to create "human" art? What would be the relation between art and machine?

Trotsky describes these debates:

"While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years."

There are too many aspects of this explosion in artistic output and endeavour to cover in one short piece so I will focus on one of the main engines of change, a method that took art to the masses beyond the cities for the first time - Agitprop

Agitprop

American journalist John Reed who wrote the magnificent eye witness account of the revolution Ten Days that shook the World, made into a film "Reds", expresses the transformation: "The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From the Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, carloads, trainloads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable." This was a nation where over 80% of the population was illiterate. Agitprop trains spread information across Russia's vast landscape, traveling to the front lines and distributing propaganda literature to civilians and soldiers of the Red Army fighting in the Civil War (1917-1923). The first agitprop train was named after Lenin, it left from Moscow to Kazan in August 1918.

Art students, led by both Constructivist and Suprematist artists, painted the military trains of the civil war with revolutionary propaganda, graphical or satirical paintings, which playfully reflected the names of the trains and the places where they were headed.

Each agitprop train was equipped with a small library and printing press for printing pamphlets and newspapers and a radio transmitter/receiver to receive fresh information from Moscow. The Constructivists like Malevich, Mayakovsky and El Lissitzky were involved in creating artistic content and propaganda materials for the trains although the crucial artistic medium was film. The Bolsheviks considered film the most 'modern' and 'objective' art form and the least encumbered with bourgeois associations. 'Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.' (Lenin, 1919). Over 2 million people attended the cinema screenings (agitki) shown on board the agitprop trains.

Agitational bureaus (agitpunkty) were established at major railway stations, important centres of engaging with the wider population- where libraries, lecture halls, and theatres were opened.

The October Revolution, was the most active of all "agit-trains,". In two months alone, it screened cinema to over 100,000 people in 97 screenings. Typically 16 to 18 cars in length, other agit-trains included the Red East, Soviet Caucasus, and Red Cossack. All were equipped for any possible propaganda need, each with its own broadcast radio station, internal telephone system, mobile camera shop, printing press, and newspaper office.

Inside each of the agit-trains, films were screened with musical accompaniment – either piano, or gramophone records.

The agit-boat Red Star spent several months in 1919 and the summer of 1920 sailing up and down the Volga river. Red Star presented more than 400 film shows during its two-year tenure, reaching more than half a million viewers.

As with the agit-trains, the Red Star included among its most active participants leaders from the highest levels of the Russian Communist Party, including V. M. Molotov, as its political commissar, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Krupskaya wrote that Lenin loved the Red Star and would be more than happy to spend his time there but he was needed elsewhere.

Conclusion

The influence of the Russian Revolution and its ideas spread throughout the world, not only to Europe but also to Latin America. And often these ideas were applied to receptive artistic cultures.

"Everything that we went through and realized in art is substantial, is very important, but it is just the beginning, the beginning of a great path to the happiness of mankind, the first step to which was taken by, the Great October Revolution," Siqueiros wrote in his autobiography.

Diego Rivera worked in the USSR in 1927-1928. There he co-founded the October Association, where he collaborated with painters Alexander Deyneka and Dmitri Moor, architects Leonid, Victor and Alexander Vesnin and film director Sergei Eisenstein. Returning to Mexico, Rivera began his magnum opus, The History of Mexico mural at the National Palace in Mexico City.

The French surrealists were influenced, however they proposed to start the revolution in their consciousness through art. "We were bewitched by the triumph of the Russian revolution and the creation of a workers' state led to a big change in our views," wrote André Breton.The surrealists issued the "Revolution first of all and forever" declaration, calling on a radical social alteration in society.

In the German Bauhaus School, an art school in which many teachers shared revolutionary political views of the revolution, artists and architects inspired by the revolution thought that the new art would help build a happy future for humanity. Fresh news from Russia came to Germany via Vasily Kandinsky and El Lissitzky, who emigrated from Russia in 1921.

Architects and interior designers across the world were heavily influenced, from Le Corbusier to Gabo, established a version of Constructivism in England during the 1930s and 1940s and across Latin America

However by 1930 art has gone the same way as worker-led soviets, Trotsky and Bolshevism. Many of the young Constructivist artists, experimenters, writers and theatre workers who aligned themselves with the workers' state were liquidated in the gulags, along with the original Bolshevik revolutionaries from 1917. For Stalin the avant garde was too close to the Bolsheviks. Some like Mayakovsky committed suicide - Malevich died of cancer in a camp.

At his funeral hundreds of mourners in celebration of Malevich, the revolution and in opposition to Stalinism, wore a black square pinned to their collars. Sadly, His grave is now situated under a ugly concrete department block.

From the unlimited possibilities of 1917, the unleashing of creativity and mass participation in the arts during the early years, was replaced by coercion and control.

But no matter what the ruling class would have us believe Stalin was not the natural heir of October. He murdered the memory of that revolution.

The history of the Russian Revolution and the art that flourished with it for a brief few years is our history. It provides us with a glimpse into what liberation can look like; at the artistic heights humanity can achieve.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books