The story of the cultural repercussions of the revolutions of 1917–19 took some time to unfold. Recounted with enthusiasm at the time and in the period immediately following, it passed into a curious limbo of forgetfulness in the twenty years between Hitler’s ascent to power and the death of Stalin. It was only in the 1960s that the history began once again to be studied seriously. Even those cases where the documentation had not been destroyed or scattered, in the three countries most directly concerned—the Soviet Union, Germany and Hungary—there was a positive official determination to ignore it, while elsewhere many of the cultural productions themselves could be studied only at second hand. It seemed that between the outbreak of the First World War and the eruption of Surrealism in Paris at the end of the 20s, the history of art presented only a black hole in which nothing well defined could be ascertained. Only when these three countries decided to acknowledge their modern inheritance and to share it—if only with a thousand provisos—could historians begin to fill in the gap.footnote1

Today the picture has completely changed, and it is possible to track the history of the modernist movement from its beginnings around the turn of the century to its suppression, in Central Europe, in the 1930s. We can see that the effects of war and revolution were determining above all in three respects. First, there was the perception of the great new social and cultural possibilities that were opening up, if not for all humanity then at least for a few superior individuals: there was a new air to breathe, and no one who was not materially threatened by it could fail to register the influence of the new ideas and new aspirations in their creative work. Then there was the transformation of the cultural system, or better, as Brecht defined it, the cultural ‘apparatus’ of the arts: the ministers and local officials, the proprietors and directors of theatres and their policies, orchestra conductors, and so on. In other words, the entire system of teaching and subsidy was opened up from top to bottom, bringing all kinds of material and practical advantages for artists once starved of support, and presenting their work to a new and much larger public. Finally, there were the tasks of the revolution itself, which were in the first place those of agitation and propaganda, and then the work of social and industrial bodies geared towards the reconstruction of popular everyday life.

Corresponding to all this was the enormous stimulus of certain technico-social transformations in the artistic field. If the pre-war decade was one of great individual departures that launched the modernist movement as we know it—the pioneering works of artists such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Marinetti, Loos and Apollinaire—by the war’s end a good deal of discovery and development was occurring on quite another plane. New means of communication opened up, such as cinema and radio; new genres emerged, such as detective fiction and jazz. The first of these developments privileged collective work over individual artistic inspiration; the second led to modes capable of reaching beyond the elite to a wider public. So it came about, for a time at least, that, thanks to the political revolution, the ideas of the cultural avant-garde could be fruitfully brought to the popular means of communication and their public, and in such ways the great artistic renaissance of the 20th century took another step forward.

The ideological premises had been in place for a long time. Although Marxism’s founders were only marginally concerned with art and literature—important as their scattered observations were in this history, nevertheless—the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, together with the Commune of 1871, established a precedent, inaugurating a tradition that tied the most advanced artists to the idea of social change. At the juncture of 1848, Proudhon’s friendship with Courbet was perhaps more important than his actual ideas about art, which were forgotten by the end of the century; Fourier’s utopian urbanism, in contrast, remained influential into the late 1920s. In the meantime, Russia’s revolutionary movement gave birth to Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian aesthetic, with its conception of an engaged literature and consequent literary approach to the other arts. After 1890, the cultural policy of the new social-democratic parties became much less hesitant, directed mainly towards the promotion of the arts and the techniques involved in practising them. This was the realization of the principle upheld by the English William Morris and the popular theatre movements in Germany and France—influential, in Germany, in the Volksbühne and in Berlin’s Werkbund of architecture and graphic design, and, later, among Russian revolutionary exiles, in the concept of Proletkult, which specified the need for the workers to create their own culture. A common theme, first voiced by Morris and Emile Vandervelde, linked Walter Gropius and Erwin Piscator with Romain Rolland, Maxim Gorky and Anatoly Lunacharsky.

At the start of the 20th century it still seemed that the cultural and political avant-gardes were superimposable, each on the other, or at least that they followed the same path. This was in one sense a terminological confusion: in the course of the 19th century the military concept of ‘vanguard’ was extended to include political progressives, and then the more advanced artists. The same ambiguity occurred in the use of the term ‘bourgeois’, whose signification in the art world was established not by Marx but by satirists such as Daumier and Henri Monnier, for whom the bourgeois was not the subject of power but a laughing stock, a social climber in the dominant class, insecure in status and philistine in matters of taste. The artists who endorsed this image—the majority—not only shared the ‘progressivism’ of the political left; they also saw themselves as facing a common enemy. Independently of their ideological position, therefore, this feeling dictated their attitude. For them, logic counted for less than emotion, especially since their material interests were not in play; indeed, the very large majority of creative artists, in all camps, led a financially precarious existence, in which they had little enough to lose except their freedom. When a society is shaken by gusts of anger and hope, there is no group more likely to let itself get carried away.

This was very much what happened in the autumn of 1917, with effects reaching far beyond the borders of Russia. In contrast with France in 1789 and 1848, the October Revolution did not explode in peacetime, and was seen everywhere as an integral part of the ever more widespread movement against the World War. Given the hopes of the artists, the two things were hard to separate. In Germany, for example, where opposition to the War among artists and writers (grouped around the magazine Die Aktion) was perhaps stronger than in any other country, 1916 brought the humanitarian poetry of Ernst Toller, Johannes Becher and Walter Hasenclever, urging a new, utopian expressionism founded on the hope of fraternal reconciliation among the belligerent armies. In Zurich it was also the year of Dadaism, a non-bellicose, anti-patriotic and anti-bourgeois variety of Futurism, while in Berlin Wieland Herzfelde began to promote Georg Grosz’s venomous, nihilistic works. In France too, disillusionment spread, though not yet so widely, and in the autumn of the same year there began the serial publication of the first great anti-war novel, Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu.

More than a year before the Bolshevik revolution, above all in Germany and in some regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, numerous artists willing to join hands made a gesture that no political group outside Russia seemed in a position to match. Thus, when the revolution broke out in 1917, many of their hopes crystallized around it, shaping a lifelong loyalty to the new Soviet state on the part of many, including those I have mentioned, none of whom had any prior ties with Russia. It was natural to suppose that the German revolution of November 1918 would follow a similar path, bringing the two former enemies into close alignment, while it was logical to expect parallel developments elsewhere in Central Europe after the collapse of Austria-Hungary. In the mind of many artists there formed the prospect of a new Russia and a Soviet Germany based on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils created in November 1918 (in which many of them had in fact participated), allied with friendly states to the south-east and perhaps across the Rhine as well. Their hope was for a peaceful socialist Europe.