“They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist.”
– Trotsky, on the history of new political and artistic movements (1938)
Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses — if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a “splinter” of Judaism; Protestantism a “splinter” of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” did not suffer from anemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow. . . .
When an artistic [like a political] tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative “splinters” separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters.” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong — and life passes them by. . . .
The ideological base of the conflict between the [Trotskyist] Fourth International and the [Stalinist, mainstream Communist] Third International is the profound disagreement not only on the tasks of the party but in general on the entire material and spiritual life of mankind. . . .
“Independence” and “freedom” are two empty notions. But I am ready to grant that “independence” and “freedom” as you understand them represent some kind of actual cultural value. Excellent! But then it is necessary to defend them with sword, or at least with whip, in hand. Every new artistic or literary tendency (naturalism, symbolism, futurism, cubism, expressionism and so forth and so on) has begun with a “scandal,” breaking the old respected crockery, bruising many established authorities. . . . [T]hese people — artists, as well as literary critics — had something to say. They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist.
So far as your publication [Partisan Review] is concerned, it wishes, in the main instance, apparently to demonstrate its respectability. You defend yourselves from the Stalinists like well-behaved young ladies whom street rowdies insult. “Why are we attacked?” you complain “we want only one thing: to live and let others live.” Such a policy cannot gain success. . . .
[S]erious success has never yet been based on political, cultural and esthetic disorientation.
I wanted to hope that this was but a temporary condition and that the publishers of Partisan Review would cease to be afraid of themselves. I must say, however, that the Symposium outlined by you is not at all capable of strengthening these hopes. You phrase the question about Marxism as if you were beginning history from a clean page. The very Symposium title itself sounds extremely pretentious and at the same time confused. The majority of the writers whom you have invited have shown by their whole past — alas! — a complete incapacity for theoretical thinking. Some of them are political corpses. How can a corpse be entrusted with deciding whether Marxism is a living force? . . .
Currents of the highest tension are active in all fields of culture and ideology. You evidently wish to create a small cultural monastery, guarding itself from the outside world by skepticism, agnosticism and respectability. Such an endeavor does not open up any kind of perspective.
It is entirely possible that the tone of this letter will appear to you as sharp, impermissible, and “sectarian.” In my eyes this would constitute merely supplementary proof of the fact that you wish to publish a peaceful “little” magazine without participating actively in the cultural life of your epoch.