Craig Brandist: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia

Interviewed by Selim Nadi 

Russian magazines

A French version of this interview was originally published at

Craig Brandist is Professor of Cultural Theory and Intellectual History, and Director of the Bakhtin Centre at the University of Sheffield, UK. Specialising in early Soviet thought, his books include Carnival Culture and the Soviet Modernist Novel (1996), The Bakhtin Circle: Philosophy, Culture and Politics (2002) and Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917-1938 (with Katya Chown, 2010). Building on the research for his recent book Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (2015), he is currently working with Peter Thomas on a book about Antonio Gramsci's time in the USSR, and on early Soviet oriental studies.

  •  Could you please expand on the evolution of orientology that emerged at St. Petersburg University at the end of the 1890s and how « ideas [from those orientalists] about empire tended to coalesce around a liberal-imperial perspective » (p. 56)? To what extent did linguistics became an «autonomous discipline » with the 1917 Revolution?


These are really two separate questions. The oriental studies, or ‘orientology’ (that is a term used to avoid the pejorative connotations ‘orientalism’ has acquired since Said’s book of that name), that I discuss in the book, refer to the proponents of late Imperial oriental studies that were at least to some extent, and to various degrees, fellow travellers of the Kadet Party. This was the minority liberal wing of the bourgeoisie that recognized that Tsarist nationality policies were creating more problems for the Imperial state than it was solving. While their genuine and profound interest in the Russian Empire’s ‘East’ cannot be doubted, they championed the Empire as a political space even while they championed the cultures of the national regions. These were, in the Gramscian sense, traditional intellectuals, who sought to promote a bourgeois hegemony in the Russian Empire against both the autocracy and the proletariat. This involved the intellectual subordination of the national minorities to the Russian state while giving them the sense of playing an equal role in Russian life. Their social identity would therefore be hybrid, but enclosed within the totality of the Russian state, which would predominate. The similarity of some of their formulations with those of contemporary postcolonial theory, particularly in its poststructuralist form, is striking. Indeed, what they proposed was the forerunner of contemporary policies of multiculturalism, such as that developed in the US formally to accommodate oppressed minorities while undermining the radical challenge to the social order that the Civil Rights movement represented. The problem for the liberals in the Russian Empire is that the bourgeoisie generally was not keen on such a project, especially after the 1905 Revolution, when they turned to the autocracy for protection from a mass movement clearly pushing beyond the bounds of what they found acceptable change. It is important to note that the orientologists concerned were resolutely anti-orientalist in the Saidian sense, tirelessly seeking to undermine Eurocentric stereotypes and the dichotomies of East and West then typical of British and French oriental studies in particular. This did not, however, prevent them from supporting the Russian imperial state. Quite the contrary. As the great historian of Central Asia Vitalii Bartol’s put it at the very beginning of the 20th Century: ‘the peoples of the east will believe in the superiority of our culture all the more when they are convinced we know them better than they know themselves’. In this way, Russian Orientalists could contribute to the ‘peaceful convergence of the peoples of the east with Russia’.

As for the question of linguistics, I will discuss this below, when discussing the work of Saussure. Here I will simply say that intellectual and disciplinary distinctions and sociopolitical developments cannot be understood in isolation, especially in a period as radically transformative as the one we are discussing.

  • In your book, you write that the defeat of the 1905 Revolution was followed by a « cultural turn » (p. 35). Could you please explain how this turn became part of a broader project of the hegemony of the proletariat, especially under a group of Bolsheviks (the Vperedist faction) led by Aleksandr Bogdanov and the famous theorist of theatre Anatolii Lunacharskii? What role did « proletarian culture » play in the struggle for proletarian hegemony before 1917?


The years of reaction that followed the defeat of the 1905 Revolution removed the tangible prospect of immediate social transformation. Among the traditional intellectuals of Russia there was a withdrawal from politics altogether, since not only did the autocracy remain in place, but the revolutionary movement that had appeared on the historical stage went beyond what most were willing to countenance. Nikolai Bakhtin, brother of the famous philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, noted that the 1905 defeat led to 'an astonishing effervescence of mysticism' among the traditional literary intelligentsia, with deferred transformation transposed to the literary and artistic world, resulting in the emergence of an ‘enormous Bloomsbury’. For revolutionaries, the combination of increased repression and the experience of defeat confirmed that the overthrow of the autocracy would be a longer process than previously envisaged and some argued this meant going beyond the tasks of political organization narrowly understood. The German workers’ movement had involved the setting up of many workers’ educational organizations in response to serious obstacles to political organization, while the British Trades Union movement had also developed an apparatus for educating its members. In Russia this took on a more theoretically elaborated form in the work of Bogdanov, Lunacharskii, Gorky and others, to some extent based on the example of French and Italian syndicalism, which gave the workers’ movement a mythical dimension. Bogdanov was less attracted to this aspect than the other two, but drawing on the ideas of Joseph Diezgen and Ludwig Noiré, he developed the idea that different ways of thinking developed directly from the specific forms of labour activity, leading to the emergence of class-specific worldviews. Only the bourgeoisie and proletariat had the ability to develop holistic worldviews that could achieve ‘general cultural hegemony’, but the relative power of each depended fundamentally on the level of systematicity and organization their culture achieved. Thus the Party needed to facilitate the emergence of a systematic, proletarian culture, fostering the growth of what Gramsci was to term ‘organic intellectuals’ in order to be able to win over the ‘subaltern classes’.

This was an influential trend during the years of reaction, though it became a less attractive use of resources as the revolutionary movement recovered and labour militancy increased in the years before World War One. Nevertheless, the appeal of engagement in literature among newly literate workers remained strong, and was recognized within the revolutionary Party. This was to a considerable extent due to the social and political importance of literature in Russia in the nineteenth century, where critical discussion of literature became a surrogate for critical engagement with the society represented therein. Literary critics like Vissarion Belinskii and more rounded, radical intellectuals like Nikolai Chernyshevskii, and many writers themselves, demanded literature become a tribune of the people in conditions where publication of social criticism and political activity was restricted. For these reasons the question of proletarian culture and an insistence on the social importance of literature endured, playing a significant role in the revolution itself and in the debates that followed.

  • How influential was the Proletkul’t after the October 1917 Revolution? What were the relations between the Proletkul’t and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (TEO)? Why was the Theatre Section of the TEO, led by Lunacharskii and Meierkhol'd, so influential?


During the Civil War Proletkult developed into a very large organization with multiple branches in Russia’s urban areas. Within it there were a range of perspectives and opinions ranging from iconoclastic to much more cautious. Relations with the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) were complex and shifting. One reason for this was that Proletkult had been formed a week before the October Revolution and had a constitution that made it independent from the remnants of the contested imperial state. After the Soviets had deposed the provisional government and begun creating a very different kind of state the question of its independence appeared in quite a different light. The matter was not addressed systematically until after the Civil War, and in any case Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharskii was one of the founders of Proletkult, and the cultural policy he presided over was a hybrid of Leninist and Bogdanovian trends. Once the Civil War ended and a coherent educational and cultural policy began to emerge the utopianism of Proletkult clashed with the immediate tasks of economic and political reconstruction – such basic needs as the provision of basic education for the majority who were either illiterate or barely literate and the creation of standard forms on non-Russian languages and creating an educational programme in these languages demanded the vast majority of very meager resources. The achievements were impressive indeed given the limitations. It was in this context, and in the context of fears about the NEP leading to the emergence of political movements undermining the socialist aims of the regime, that Proletkult was subordinated to Narkompros. The ideas of proletarian culture persisted, however, and repeatedly emerged among groups of belligerent and self-appointed groups of advocates of proletarian culture who had a much weaker connection with any mass movement, who pressed for Party recognition of their leadership in the struggle for cultural hegemony. Fears that NEP was diluting the cultural programme of the Revolution gave this some considerable appeal among some in the Party, but proletarian culture was not officially endorsed as a task for the present until Bukharin drafted and championed a declaration on the Party’s role in relation to artistic literature in June 1925.

TEO is an interesting story in itself. The place of theatre in a revolutionary society with mass illiteracy was unusually prominent, and it expanded well beyond the bounds of theatre as usually understood. Mass festivals and street theatre were just the beginning of the expansion, for what was emerging was a concern with performance more generally. It is striking the number and variety of artists and intellectuals who became involved, ranging from Symbolists led by Viacheslav Ivanov, who was motivated by Nietzsche’s ideas about the role of the theatre in ancient Athens, through to advocates of proletarian culture seeking to make direct connections with the urban masses. Beyond this, however, was a concern with the performative aspects of mass communication more generally, and this was especially manifested in the formation of TEO institutions of the ‘living word’ (zhivoe slovo, in Russian, where slovo is close to the Greek logos, meaning both word and logic), which sought to teach the masses to speak publicly and thus participate directly in social life. Some of the most interesting research about the social stratification of language, speech acts, modes of persuasion and other aspects of what is now called applied linguistics has its origins here. This was, one must remember, the time of the development of radio (the national radio system was established in 1924) and sound recordings, and the importance of this was recognized very quickly.

  • How did Lenin define the concept of « hegemony » prior to the 1917 Revolution? How was this concept related to a broader political strategy?


In a society where the vast majority of the population was made up of non-proletarians, and there was a contest for leadership of this predominantly rural mass, in the struggle to overthrow the autocracy, between the growing and highly concentrated proletariat and a relatively weak and cowardly bourgeoisie, it was a fundamental project. Zinoviev was, I think, justified in stressing the importance of the idea of proletarian hegemony in the development of Bolshevism, and Lenin’s central role in its development. This is also something that Gramsci clearly inherits and develops. Since the proletariat was too small to overthrow the state alone, it needed to lead the ‘democratic peasantry’ and oppressed nationalities in a common struggle, and that even if, as was expected, this initially resulted in a bourgeois democratic republic, the political freedoms would be more profound the stronger the leadership of the proletariat in that struggle. The stage would them be set for the socialist revolution. This was the crux of the struggle for hegemony in pre-Revolutionary conditions. It meant the proletariat must develop a strategy to win leadership in this larger struggle, and it was only by doing this that it passed from a mere collection of guilds or sectional interests, to a class in the full sense of the word. After the 1905 revolution there were important debates about the extent to which the proletariat should place demands on the bourgeoisie that it was unable to bear, and the extent to which cultural and more narrowly political aspects should take prominence. Yet even while Lenin clearly argued for the primacy of politics, this did not mean cultural, and especially linguistic factors were unimportant. They merely needed to be considered as dimensions of a larger struggle.

  • To what extent was the notorious conflict between Bogdanov and Lenin linked to the question of « how to pursue a hegemonic project » (p. 19)?


The answer must be: to a significant extent. In collapsing the distinction between social being and social consciousness, Bogdanov viewed the comprehensive, ideological preparation of the proletariat to be a precondition for the revolution. This is why he opposed the formation of the Soviets in 1905 – workers were not, in his evaluation, ready to exercise political power and needed further to be trained by the revolutionary intelligentsia. Only subsequently would this group, which he fully believed to be compromised by its non-proletarian origins, yield its leadership to the proletarian intelligentsia it was preparing. It is interesting that Lenin’s main broadside against Bogdanov is the former’s flawed Materialism and Empiriocriticism, but this is because the political errors were rooted in certain philosophical assumptions that Bogdanov made. There was continuity between the Kantian doctrine that one needs to become acquainted with an instrument (reason) before employing it and Bogdanov’s insistence that the proletariat must develop its entire worldview before exercising power. It is the same issue that Hegel recognized in Kant: given that the examination of knowledge is an act of knowledge the idea that one should ‘seek to know before we know’ resembles Scholasticus resolving not to venture into the water without first learning to swim.

For Lenin, the workers developed their hegemonic potential in and through political action, while for Bogdanov the development of the former precedes the latter.

  • The Linguistic Dimension of Political Hegemony is a key element of your book. Could you come back on the place language had in Lenin's view of the national question? You especially insist on the fact that « [t]he equality of languages will not encourage a fragmentation of the language community, but its unification » (p. 42). So language seems to have been an important point in Lenin's broader political thought about democracy and proletarian hegemony.


Yes, indeed. The Russian Empire had around 150 different languages, less that half of the population spoke Russian and of this half the majority spoke nothing approximating standard Russian and a large proportion were illiterate. Inevitably language played a vital role and was closely linked to the national question, especially in places like Poland, Finland and Ukraine where a standard national language and national self-consciousness did exist. The situation was different among what became the southern states of the USSR, where there was a lack of any standardized language in most areas and, correspondingly, an overwhelming number of illiterates. So it was all very complex, but the principle Lenin insisted upon was that compulsion to learn and use Russian in public life could only be experienced as a colonial imposition by non-Russians and would inevitably exacerbate friction between ethnic groups that would obstruct the achievement of hegemony by the predominantly Russian-speaking proletariat. In the same way as commitment to the right to national self-determination was fundamental in securing unity among the exploited and oppressed across the Empire, so the equality of languages was fundamental to unity across linguistic boundaries. Moreover, as Lenin argued in an article of 1914, once compulsion was removed, the regional prestige of the Russian language, deriving from the economic and cultural achievements in that language, would not only remain but would even be enhanced.

Here we have the same convergence of linguistic and political hegemony as we find in Gramsci’s prison works, though there it is rather more theoretically elaborated.

  • How was the concept of « hegemony » redefined during the NEP period?


Perhaps the main redefinition was that in addition to being a political, linguistic and cultural project, hegemony took on a developmental aspect. The significantly lower level of economic and educational levels, as well as the institutions to support cultural development such as the press and so on, among many non-Russian populations needed to be addressed if the population was to see their interests as best served by an alliance with the Russian proletariat. Even within Russian-speaking areas, the very poor conditions in the countryside needed to improve, and effective patterns of communication between town and countryside, as well as between the metropolitan centre and outlying areas needed to be established and maintained. Thus patterns of investment, taxation and the development of a local cadre took central stage for the maintenance of the smychka (union or alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry) and the leading role of the Party, as the political manifestation of the proletariat as a class, in that alliance. Of course this characterization of the Party became increasingly distant from reality as the decade progressed, but this nevertheless was the terrain on which discussions about hegemony took place.

  • Why was the press restructured during the 11th Party Congress (1922)? Beside the propaganda aspects, what kind of function had the press according to the Bolsheviks? How did the press adapt to the « linguistic fragmentation » (p. 114) of Russia?


The press played a crucial role in the emergence of a new public discourse and it had to pay a number of roles simultaneously. It needed to establish communication between the cities and the countryside in conditions where there was a major drive against illiteracy, and this required the emergence of some sort of standard language. Worker and peasant correspondents were especially important in this project, for it is they who remained close to the vernacular while also communicating with a more educated editorship. They became important conduits between different social strata and needed on the one hand to convey grievances from localities to the centre and information from the centre to the localities. They needed to facilitate the emergence of a linguistic structure that could be the medium for education and social development. Outside the Russian-speaking areas the development of a press was fundamental to the emergence of a public sphere and autonomous forms of administration that allowed the former colonies to achieve formal equality with Russia. The development of a written culture in most parts of the USSR dates from this time, and so the press correspondingly had a multi-leveled importance.

  • Was Saussure’s theory of language discussed by Soviet linguists during the 1920s in the Soviet Union?


Most linguists promptly read Saussure’s Cours in the original French upon its publication, and an unpublished translation circulated widely in the 1920s. It finally appeared in Russian translation only in the late 1930s, but it was already well known by this time. It was widely discussed at the various research institutions, and exerted a formative influence on many areas of Soviet linguistic and literary thought. There was a mixed response, with some, like nascent structuralists Roman Jakobson and Grigorii Vinokur very enthusiastic, and others like Valentin Voloshinov and Lev Iakubinskii quite hostile. Another group, including Evgenii Polivanov regarded Saussure’s contribution to be much less essential that many suggested, noting that the innovations of Jan Baudouin de Courtenay had anticipated most of what Saussure proposed. In each case it was often the significance of Saussure’s distinction between synchronic and diachronic approaches that was misunderstood. Often the distinction between points of view on language was mistaken for ontological claims about language, while Polivanov failed to recognize the radical conclusions Saussure had drawn from the distinction, which had escaped Baudouin.

Leaving all that to one side, however, the new paradigm coincided with a more general shift towards sociological approaches to language and with a vast range of practical problems in applied linguistics, which was addressed after the Revolution. Saussurean insights thus became combined with sociological imperatives as new standard languages were codified, new scripts developed and patterns of usage subjected to analysis.

  • How did the launch of the Five-Years Plan led to the decline of the notion of hegemony “as a critical resource dealing with the internal politics and culture of the USSR” (p. 176)?


The first Five-Year Plan was the point at which the quantitative bureaucratization of the USSR transformed into quality. Under pressure of military encirclement and economic crisis, the bureaucracy was transformed into a structurally differentiated social group pursuing the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and exploiting wage labour to do so. The peasantry was forcibly collectivized, while workers were subjected to one-man management and experienced precipitously falling wages. Under these circumstances the alliance between the peasantry and proletariat, which involved concessions by the latter to maintain leadership over the former ceased to be a prime consideration, and indeed contradicted current policy. Similarly, a decisive shift towards the centralization of power, and demands on the national republics to contribute more to the central budget, enforced by increased compulsion, fundamentally changed the relationship between the central authorities and the national minorities. A sharp narrowing of political and academic debates alike accompanied these movements, and all this together undermined the productive ways in which hegemony had been theorized in the 1920s. The frequency of use of the term ‘hegemony’ itself declines precipitously in this period with two exceptions: it continues to be used in discussion about struggles abroad, especially in relation to Communist Parties’ involvement in anti-colonial struggles, and in works about the struggle for proletarian hegemony in culture. This latter was because bellicose advocates of proletarian culture had been given free reign to harass fellow-traveller and avant-garde artists and to consolidate their own position in what became known as the ‘cultural revolution’. Such works had none of the sophistication of the earlier Proletkult debates, let alone Bogdanov’s theoretical works.

Given that what allegedly was taking place through the plans was the establishment of socialism in one country, the struggle for hegemony within the USSR was held to be over. Thus all critical discussion employing the idea now applied only to other parts of the world, and this even applied to discussion of the formation of national languages. So meaningful sociolinguistic discussions needed to be developed in relation either to historical periods or foreign states.

  •  Could you please explain the main differences between the concept of hegemony in the years following the 1917 Revolution in Russia – even if, as you wrote in your book, « there was no explicit theory of hegemony set out in defined texts » (p. 18) – and the way it was used by « Neo-Gramscian » intellectuals later? How do you see the way Gramsci is “used” today by cultural or post-colonial studies?


Perhaps the simplest answer to this is that the hegemony in each case was severed from the agency of the proletariat. Once this occurred, and the idea of hegemony was separated from the dialectic of capital and labour competing for the leadership of the subaltern classes, what remained was the instability of popular consciousness subjected to but resisting power. At the same time, the post-Humboldtian idea of language as a worldview, which was central to Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony, was replaced with a post-structuralist theory of language, which dissolved agency into the play of signification. There were a number of reformulations that took place. In Stuart Hall’s cultural studies, for instance, the category of popular culture displaced the working class, so that the way ruling discourses were negotiated in forms of popular production and reception came to the fore. This resulted in some valuable studies, but extracted from the class struggle more generally the formation of counter-hegemonic formations disappeared from sight and we were often left with ambiguities and negotiations as political alliances and action was replaced by cultural differences. In many post-colonial theories the realities of imperialism that were still present in the works of Edward Said dissolved into a Foucauldian metaphysic of unstable forms of power. Said’s eclecticism encouraged the idea of hegemony to be combined with the Foucauldian notions of power/knowledge and discourse, which ultimately drained away the political capacities of hegemony as a critical concept. Said himself recognized this in the work he produced after Orientalism, but it was too late to restrain the descent into relativism that fashionable theories of postmodernism encouraged.

Now many of these problems are being recognized and so a reassessment of the history of the critical concepts we employ is very important for the production of a critical apparatus that can inform our political practice. I hope I am making a contribution to this.