From India to Mexico, China to Iraq, the momentous events of 1917 in Russia inspired artists all over the world to produce a poetry for mass action, says VIJAY PRASHAD
IN 1924, Mexico’s Manuel Maple Acre wrote a sublime and complex poem, Urbe: Super-Poema Bolchevique en Cinco Cantos (City: Bolshevik Super-Poem in Five Cantos). Here was language stuttering against the old forms, looking for new terms, new idioms, new ways to express the new world that artists wanted to produce: “Russia’s lungs / blow the wind / of social revolution toward us.
The poem, dedicated to the “workers of Mexico,” echoed the impatient style of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who also felt that the old language, steeped in feudal culture, was not adequate for the revolutionary era.
Old Russian was saturated with feudal implications, just as the hierarchies of the system produced bodies that were filled with subservience, the hunched shoulders, the head downcast.
But the new Russia had a new attitude. Lenin’s wife Krupskaya recounted the “altered language” she heard from women workers and peasants at a meeting. The speakers, she remembered, “spoke boldly and frankly about everything.”
How to speak boldly now as poets, as artists, as actors, as designers? People like Mayakovsky produced novel work, inventive work, work that tried to find itself in the atmosphere of radical democracy. They wanted to shatter the numbness of society.
It was to break the numbness that Nazrul Islam, Bengal’s communist poet, wrote his triumphant song Bidrohi (Rebel) in December 1921. Islam and others were frustrated with the present and eager to create the future.
These early communists, as the historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay called them, were surrounded by literary magazines with names that evoke the desire for a new opening — Bijali (Lightning) and Dhumketu (Comet). The police read Dhumketu and described it quite accurately. “The whirlwind energy of the style and inflammatory character of the language had a great unsettling effect on premature and unbalanced minds with whom the paper was immensely popular.”
Nazrul Islam’s poem Bidrohi carries the urgency of Mayakovsky and Maple Arce, of the poets of revolutionary electricity.
“In one hand of mine is the tender flute / While in the other I hold the war bugle! / I am the Bedouin, I am Chengis, / I salute none but me!
“Maddened with an intense joy I rush onward, / I am insane! I am insane! / Suddenly I have come to know myself, / All the false barriers have crumbled today!
‘I am the rebel eternal / I raise my head beyond this world, / High, ever erect and alone!”
This desire to write against the numbness was what would draw in writers from China to Chile, eager to find new language to keep up with the kind of left-wing futurism of the Soviets. It is the sound that one hears from Islam, surely, but also from the bursting imagery of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the “nervous montage” cinema of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez or, later, the dream-like memoirs of Iraqi communist writer Haifa Zangana.
Maple Arce wrote at a particularly exciting time for Mexico’s history. From 1920 to 1924, powerful struggles of peasants and workers forced the Mexican government to deepen its revolutionary commitment.
When the government vacillated between a revolutionary agenda and reformism, the organised working-class and peasantry fought it to conduct land reforms and to pursue cultural and educational policies that favoured the masses.
With 90 per cent of Mexico illiterate, visual and theatrical arts were necessary to transmit the values of the revolution. It was during the early 1920s that artists started to paint Mexican public spaces and actors began to take their theatre on the road, when educators went to rural areas to teach and when land reform provided the material basis for dignity in the countryside.
All of this was to promote the values of the 1911 Mexican revolution despite the hesitancy of the leadership that emerged. In this time came the murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, the paintings of Frida Kahlo and the photography of Tina Modotti and Manual Alvarez Bravo.
Many of these artists were members of the Mexican Communist Party and also of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, whose manifesto said that Mexican art is great because it “surges from the people, it is collective.” It would break hierarchies, straighten spines, loosen tongues.
Twenty years later, in May 1942, Mao gave a series of lectures to the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. Mao had closely read Lenin’s exhortation from 1905 that the new revolutionary literature might serve “the millions and tens of millions of working people — the flower of the country, its strength and its future.” He was sympathetic to the fact that, like Russia and Mexico, China was a country with high illiteracy.
Mao was clear that the revolutionary movement had two armies — the army of guns, which had fought to secure the base area of Yenan, and the army of pens, which would need to provide another kind of armour for the working-class and the peasantry.
Writers and artists have to go to the people, Mao said, in order to understand the people rather than imagine a fantasy population that would remain outside their imagination. “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and wholeheartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle, go to the source, the broadest and richest source, in order to observe, experience, study and analyse all the different kinds of people, all the classes, all the masses, all the vivid patterns of life and struggle, all the raw materials of literature and art.”
It was among the people that the artists and writers would learn not only about the social contradictions in the heart of the masses but also about the imagination of the masses and so produce art for that imagination.
The task of the revolutionary intellectuals is to “collect the opinions of these mass statesmen” — the people — “sift and refine them and return them to the masses, who then take them and put them into practice.” This is what Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, writing in his prison cell at around this same time, called elaboration — to take the views of the masses and elaborate them from common sense to philosophy.
Through wall newspapers and pamphlets and theatre and songs by revolutionary troupes, the intellectuals would transfer this popular philosophy back to the masses. “Writers and artists concentrate such everyday phenomena,” lectured Mao, “typify the contradictions and struggles within them and produce works which awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment.”
In the crucible of revolutions, whether Russia after 1917 or China in the 1940s or Cuba after 1959, literature underwent a major transformation, with revolutionary artists tugging at the strings of reality, finding new ways to say new things.
Artists and writers tried to fan the flames of revolutionary change and understanding. Their audience was not the old aristocrats or the bourgeoisie but the workers and the peasants who wanted a soundtrack for their revolution, poetry for their actions on the streets.
• Vijay Prashad is the chief editor of LeftWord Books. This is an extract from his forthcoming book Red Star Over the Third World, to be published by LeftWord Books, details: leftword.com