In 1992, after his death at the age of 45, one obituary described Dave Widgery as "a radical humanist intellectual on permanent loan to revolutionary socialism." Looking at his writing today, this label seems apt. Widgery's interests were broad. From the ups and downs of class struggle to Marxist defenses of the National Health Service, from the politics of pornography to understandings of art, poetry and music.
The article below was originally published in 1972 as "Mayakovsky and Revolutionary Art" in the journal International Socialism. Years later it appeared in a collection of essays published as Preserving Disorder. In the piece, Widgery pays homage to the influential Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The article is also available at the Marxists' Internet Archive.
Widgery's tribute is more than a worthy and engaging introduction to an important figure in radical artistic history (though it certainly is that). It is difficult to not see a commonality between Widgery and Mayakovsky. Both were writers of profound passion and intelligence who saw in revolution and rebellion not just a political transformation but a redemption of human creativity. Both were keenly sensitive to the excitement, dynamism and sadness of urban life under capitalism and had a unique ability to translate them into the written word. Both died relatively young and tragically sudden, with many speculating to what degree they may have lost their revolutionary faith. The essay below is a testament to the turbulent life of radical struggle, which both its author and its subject knew well.
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One of the delights of growing up politically lies in discovering one’s own traditions. In art they were nearly obliterated by Stalinism, declared redundant by the long post-war boom and generally buried in a "modernism" which was often apolitical and trite. It was exhilarating to unearth in Soviet Russia the most genuinely modern of modern art movements and Mayakovsky, the original "hooligan communist".
Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poetic loudspeaker of the Russian Revolution, came to socialist ideas with the enthusiasm of youth. He began to read Engels and illegal pamphlets under his desk-lid when he was 12. When later the same year his school was closed by Military Edict because of the 1905 uprising, he became chief school leaflet distributor. When he made his first contact with the illegal Bolshevik Party, he immediately presented them with his forester father’s shotgun. Aged 15, he was arrested in Moscow for helping to organise the escape of political prisoners from jail and was himself held in Novimsky Prison where he began to write poems. For the following 20 years he served the Revolution as a poet-agitator with the same audacity and passion. And when he shot himself in Moscow in 1930, he died a Bolshevik, brandishing his poems:
When I appear
at the CCC
of coming bright decades
above the band of poetic grafters and crooks
I’ll lift up high,
like a Bolshevik party-card
All the hundred volumes of my
Mayakovsky’s communism was, like him, broad shouldered and larger than life, impatient, rude and necessary:
Proletarians come to communism from the depths beneath
the depths of mines
I plunge into Communism from the heights of poetry above,
because for me
there is no love!
But his passion was neither sentimental nor cosy, like the cliches of modern Soviet art; those cheery collective farmers, the harmonious choristers and the agile folk dancers. In his complex love poems like A Cloud in Trousers and About This, he explores the nature of revolutionary love, trying to untangle his private passions from his larger love of the Revolution as the expression of human solidarity and vitality. Through his poems, we can gain a glimpse of boisterous spirit and feverish energy of the real Russian Communism so deeply buried under the false images of Stalinism. As his last poem insisted:
every kind of deathliness
every kind of life.
Mayakovsky also abhored literary pretentiousness and adored being rude and down to earth:–
I know –
a nail in my boot that’s hurting
is more nightmarish than all the fantasies of Goethe.
"I’ve become a terribly proletarian poet," he wrote to Lily Brik, the woman he loved, in a letter covered with cartoons of himself as a bear, "I’ve got no money and write no poems".
The Russia Mayakovsky grew up in was still paralyzed by its own political and economic backwardness, its industrial potential locked up in its under-development, its possibilities imprisoned by the absolute power of the Tzar and the vast empty plains of the East with their huddled villages of thatched wooden houses. But by 1900, Russia’s very backwardness had acted to suck in new manufacturing techniques from the advanced capitalist nations of the West. Cheap mass production began in a few large factories and Moscow and Petersburg became familiar with telephones, bicycles, irons and wirelesses, the new products of the machine age. To Mayakovsky, perhaps over-optimistically, the new forces of steam and electricity represented a promise of a new future and required a new form of art. Previously the Russian Left had admired the realist novelists of the 19th century; Lenin’s favourites and inspiration were Pushkin and Tolstoy. Systematic Marxist writers on art like Plekhanov and Luckacs were aesthetic conservatives. But Mayakovsky wanted to alter the form of his painting and writing to suit an age of advertising and electricity and the altered perceptions of citizens of the Twentieth Century.
The Russian tradition of the realist novel sat in his way, ‘like enormous bronze backsides’. So in the first Manifesto of the Futurist Group, characteristically entitled A Slap at the Public Taste and issued in 1912, it was denounced: ‘Let us throw Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky from the steamship of modernity’. In the name of Futurism, he and fellow poets and sculptors travelled Russia, reading poems, denouncing the Tzar and unfurling their manifesto. In many towns they were banned on sight and they remained unpublished. "Publishers do not touch us. Their capitalistic noses sensed the dynamiters in us".
And in Italy too, which had also experienced violent and abrupt industrialisation in a backward mainly peasant country, Futurism emerged with its explosive language and fierce hostility to old forms. But while Mayakovsky’s hatred for poetic marzipan and literary dust was linked to a movement to socialise art, the Italian Futurist poet Marinetti wrote with jagged, bombastic phrases and his destructive spirit led him to press towards war as a means of artistic gratification. Italian Futurism became openly fascist. As the German critic Walter Benjamin put it ‘Its own self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’. Marinetti and Mayakovsky met only once and hated each other’s guts.
But in Russia, the Futurists were the first organised grouping of artists to clearly devote themselves to the October Revolution and to express the ambition of those years. Mayakovsky became involved in a series of magazines, Art of the Commune, Lef which he edited and its successor New Lef, which championed the most avant-garde of the Russian art movements, Constructivism, which aimed at an artistic counterpart of the social revolution. The Constructivists differed sharply from the traditional defenders of realism who were grouped round the magazine Krasnaya Nov edited by a supporter of the Left Opposition, Voronsky, and the Proletkult magazine On Guard which had grown out of pre-revolutionary working class cultural institutions and stressed a fairly crude and agitational art (these tendencies had permanent bombastic quarrels and repeatedly demanded the censorship of their rivals). The Constructivists wanted an end to old elitist forms of art; the novel in its morocco binding and the oil painting with its bulbous gilt frame. They demanded instead a motivated art in new forms which related to industrial techniques in a workers’ state. As John Berger says
Their works were like hinged doors, connecting activity with activity. Art with engineering; music with painting; poetry with design; fine art with propaganda; photographs with typography; diagrams with action; the studio with the street.
They wanted to be master-executors of social command, not priest-creators awaiting inspiration. At its most extreme, it was an attempt to bulldoze down the wall between art and life, subordinating aesthetics to the actual needs of the workers’ state. As the sculptor Gabo announced in his Realist Manifesto of 1920,
In the squares and on the streets we are placing our work convinced that art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle, a consolation for the weary, and a justification for the lazy. Art should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play; on working days and holidays; at home and on the road; – in order that the flame to live should not extinguish in mankind.
It represented the release of artistic energy from the cages which boxed it up under capitalism, the energy in Mayakovsky’s triumphant poem The 150,000,000:
We will smash the old world
we will thunder
a new myth over the world.
We will trample the fence
of time beneath our feet.
We will make a musical scale
of the rainbow.
Roses and dreams
Debased by poets
in a new light
for the delight of our eyes
the eyes of big children.
We will invent new roses
roses of capitals with petals of squares
The movement tended towards an over-simple anti-art feeling similar to Dadaism which had exploded in the West as a response to the First World War. And it was also magnificently unrealistic. As the Constructivist architect Lavinsky wrote:
We are condemned to aestheticism until a bridge towards production can be found. But how can this bridge be built in a country where production itself is scarcely alive?
But amazingly, the Constructivists managed to alter the artistic means of production in fundamental ways which the capitalist "avant-garde" has yet to come to terms with. In Russia of the Revolution amazing things were possible. Mayakovsky meant it when he pronounced, "The streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes". Tallin was quite serious when he demanded the movement "into real space and real materials".
Tzarist cinema, for example, had been dominated by foreign production companies who took themselves and most of their equipment home on hearing of the revolution. Censorship had been comprehensive, even scenes of hard work and mention of the French Revolution were banned. But after the Revolution what cinema industry that remained was nationalized and new equipment procured with which to make feature and news films. The way the films were made was revolutionized. The camera was emancipated from being merely a version of the human eye and film makers explored the possibilities of editing and re-organizing the rhythms and images on the celluloid. Vertov produced revolutionary news reels; "a swift review of VISUAL events deciphered by the film camera, pieces of REAL energy brought together at intervals to form an accumulatory whole by means of highly skilled montage". Eisenstein began his series of epic feature films and Mayakovsky wrote amazing movie scripts featuring, as usual, himself as the hero. He worked alternatively on plans to reorganise the nationalized film industry (Sovkino) and on denouncing it for underestimating the masses.
Russian architecture had previously been oblivious to working class housing and produced only rhetorical and over-decorated impersonations of Western styles. Constructivist architects, organised around the magazine Sovrenunaya Arkitektura or SA, stripped away the larded decoration and disguises and used glass, aluminium, steel and asbestos frankly and elegantly. They invented the ideas of integrated design, as used on the new Pravda offices, flexible homes with interchangeable units to alter homes as families grew and shrunk and "new towns" like the one planned at Magnitogorsk. They stressed communal designs which aimed at maximum pooling and collectivization of domestic duties and the socialization of housework. Ginsburg stressed
The Constructivists approach the problem with maximum considerations for those shifts and changes in our way of life that are preparing the way for a completely new type of housing... that is to say for us the goal is not the execution of a commission as such, but collaboration with the proletariat in its task of building a new life, a new way of living.
The Soviet Pavilion in Paris in 1925, on whose design committee Mayakovsky had sat, staggered the bourgeois world by the use of Constructivist principles. In the theatre, Constructivists produced mobile stage settings, hung the auditorium with placards and bombarded the audience with leaflets during the interval. Mayerhold produced Mayakovsky’s play Mystere Bouffe, a Pilgrim’s Progress-like account of the Revolution for the international delegates to the Third International. The storming of the Winter Palace was re-enacted and the streets, squares and monuments were dyed and re-decorated to celebrate revolutionary anniversaries. Printing presses were hugely expanded and poetry jostled with posters and edicts to be printed in cheap editions with experimental typography and photo-montaged covers. Art academies were turned into polytechnics and student numbers increased. "We have taken by storm the Bastille of the Academy," the students claimed. But, as if to strike a note of realistic warning Tatlin announced in 1925, ‘We must look neither to what is old nor what is new but only to what is needed’. He was to follow his desire for the fusion of art and industry into the design of "maximum heat, minimum fuel" stoves, collapsible furniture and utensils, reflecting the needs of a virtually nomadic proletariat.
Of course Mayakovsky was in his element, "the work of the revolutionary poet does not stop at the book; meetings, speeches, front-line limericks, one-day agit-prop playlets, the living radio-voice and the slogan flashing by on trams". He travelled and declaimed on the agit-prop trains and boats which linked Moscow and Petrograd with the war fronts. He wrote slangy poems abusing the Whites and rhymed advice against drinking unboiled water and kissing ikons. He drew and wrote simple and direct story-poems (which echoed the old Russian ‘lubok’ picture and text street literature) to be displayed in Post Office windows. These ROSTA posters were printed daily in 34 towns by poster collectives and became immensely popular. He wrote advertisements for state-produced matches and sweets, held auctions of his manuscripts to raise money for the Volga famine, planned a book to answer the 20,000 questions he had been asked when reading, wrote 19 children’s books, conducted incendiary debates with rivals and fell in love several times.
Highly popular among workers and the young, he gained enemies elsewhere. Lenin disliked Futurism and did his best to halt publication of The 150,000,000. Since the Commissar for Culture Lunacharsky protected the Futurists (he had called them "the virtuoso drummers of our Red Culture"), Lenin sent a memo direct to the Head of the State Publishing House "Isn’t it possible to find some dependable anti-futurists?"
But Lenin seemed to warm to Mayakovsky, who he had called on first meeting "a hooligan communist". In a 1922 speech to the Communist Faction of the Metal Workers Union, he mentioned a Mayakovsky poem "In Re. Conferences" which satirized Bolshevik obsession with meetings. Lenin said, "I don’t know about the poetry, but as for the politics, I can vouch for it that he is absolutely right". In some of Lenin’s more lyrical phrases, "Socialism equals Soviets plus electrification" and "Revolution is the festival of the oppressed" one can almost sense Mayakovsky’s presence.
But as the heady days of war communism were followed by the compromises of the New Economic Policy, Mayakovsky became bitter against "the academics, singly and in bunches beginning to knock at the door" and suspicious of "the old familiar face of the aesthete peering out from under the mask of the engineer". His plays, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse satirized the arse-licking and pomposity of the NEP men and Red bureaucrats. "From the philistinism of living comes the Philistinism of politics" he wrote. He hated the dishonest obituaries, writing after the death of a friend "Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!" In his extended political poem Lenin (soon to be published in a new translation and design by Pluto Press), he warns that if Lenin is turned into a God figure:-
I’d have found enough curse words for blasting ears
and before they could smother my cry and drown me –
I’d have hurled to heaven blasphemies,
and battered the Kremlin with bombs -
And in 1923, a poetic leading article in LEF speaks concretely against what was to be called "the cult of the personality":
Don’t stereotype Lenin
Don’t print his portrait on placards, stickybacks,
plates, mugs and cigarette cases.
Don’t bronze-over Lenin
Don’t take from him the living gait and countenance
And in a 1929 poem Mayakovsky characteristically imagines himself delivering a poetic report to the jovial ghost of Lenin:
got right out of hand
rascals and blackguards
round and about
our Soviet land
There’s no end
to their numbers
A whole assembly belt
and red tapists
and toadies –
Chest sticking out
they arrogantly strut;
pocketfuls of pens
breastfuls of Orders
The Bathhouse was attacked and boycotted. New Lef came under fiercer criticism, most sadly from the poets of RAPP, the newly formed Writers Union which Mayakovsky eventually agreed to join. His photograph was cut out of the printed copies of The Press and Revolution for April 1930. He was prevented from visiting his new love Tatiana in Paris and could not persuade her to come to Moscow. He told an audience at a Mayakovsky Exhibition "I demand help not the glorification of non-existent virtues". He wrote:
to the teeth
with agit-prop, too
to scribble love-ballads
charming and halcyon
and crushed under foot
of my very own songs
It was as if he realized what the future held, that the Constructivists’ enthusiastic application to "social command" and the principle of utility would be used by Stalin and Zhdadov to trim all which was revolutionary and truly modern down to tidy slabs of a "socialist realism" which was in fact a 19th century naturalism. For by 1930 the Constructivist impetus was faltering, a safer art which was prepared to lend dignity to socialism in one country was better received by the artistic authorities. While constructivists’ designs were halted on the drawing board, their new towns remained unbuilt and their journals were closed down, an ornate and pompous "Palace of the Soviets" was constructed to house a "Soviet" which no longer met. Dignitaries were now taken to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Grand Opera instead of Mayerhold’s theatre and the street exhibitions. Oil paints, smocks, easels and Professors of Fine Art found their way back to the studios. Stalin ruled. On 14th April 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself with a revolver. In his suicide poem he said simply enough:
... the love-boat of life has crashed upon philistine reefs ...
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Dave Widgery (1947-1992) was a British Marxist, journalist, activist and physician. Widgery co-edited with Michael Rosen The Chatto Book of Dissent (1991) and authored several books including Beating Time, a history of Rock Against Racism.