A Soveit definition of cultural revolution: The pentecost of languages and peoples

We are perhaps most used to the Cultural Revolution in relation to China – the extraordinary decade of revolutionary upheaval and trauma that is still to be fully assessed for its drawbacks and benefits. However, the term ‘cultural revolution’ actually goes back to Lenin and Stalin, where it has a distinct meaning. For Stalin, cultural revolution is a Leninist slogan which designates raising the cultural level of workers and peasants:

Therefore, the cultural development of the working class and of the masses of the working peasantry, not only the development of literacy, although literacy is the basis of all culture, but primarily the cultivation of the ability to take part in the administration of the country, is the chief lever for improving the state and every other apparatus. This is the sense and significance of Lenin’s slogan about the cultural revolution (Works, vol. 10, pp. 330-31).

This approach to cultural revolution took on a whole new dimension when it became part of the affirmative action program of the USSR – or what was called the ‘national question’. In this case, cultural revolution meant raising and transformation the cultures of the many minorities in the USSR. Often this involved creating literate cultures where none existed before. Scripts were created, grammars written, people taught for the first time to read and write their own language, literature written, and a new intellectual and political leadership fostered. The affirmative action program also included strict punishments for racist statements and acts for scattered minorities – which included the Jews.

All of this was predicated on the core socialist idea that the party and then the government should foster rather than repress different languages and cultures. Indeed, the ‘national question’ was in many ways structured and determined by the issue of language.

Let me put it in terms of the biblical stories of Babel and Pentecost (Genesis 11 and Acts). For Babel, linguistic unity is desired and multiplicity a seeming curse; for Pentecost unity is the source of unexpected diversity.

Or in a little more detail: in Genesis, we find that initially ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Gen 11:1). Soon enough, the human effort to build a city with a tower into the heavens makes God realise the immense potential of human power. In response, God confuses human language and scatters people over the face of the earth (confusion and scattering are repeated time and again through the story, as though providing formal confirmation of the content). The account of Pentecost in Acts 2 may seem to provide a long-range resolution of this confusion of tongues. Here, the multiplicity of tongues, ‘as of fire’, appearing on the heads of the apostles, enables a united understanding of the new gospel of Christ. Multiplicity is therefore a way of understanding the same message, which may be spoken in many tongues. However, Acts has a dialectical kick: the unitary drive of the Holy Spirit, like the rush of a mighty wind, produces diversity. The result is ‘differentiated tongues’, ‘other languages’, people from ‘every nation under heaven’ hearing the apostles speak in their ‘native language’ – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs (the care with the list manifests less comprehensiveness than sheer diversity).

With this outline of the main tensions between Genesis 11 and Acts 2 in mind, it becomes possible to map different language policies and proposals (and indeed discover some surprising alliances). One cluster of such policies may be described as Babelian, or rather pre-Babelian. The desire is for one language, which existed before the divinely instigated confusion of tongues and scattering of peoples. Such a desire is predicated on the assumption that multiple languages are signs of the Fall, with Genesis 11 understood as yet another Fall story, or at least another facet of the story of the Fall that begins in Genesis 3. Far better is a universal language that would overcome the strife and discord of many tongues. Those who have pursued variations on this approach make for some strange occupiers of the same bed: Walter Benjamin’s search for the perfect, Adamic language that does not seek to communicate; the proponents of Esperanto; tsarist policy makers afraid of native languages and their connections with separatism; the Nazi refusal to acknowledge minority languages in Germany and Austria – such as the Sorbians and Slovene Carinthians; and indeed ‘assimilation’ policies around the globe even today, in which immigrants are supposed to meld into the national culture through language.

So what is Stalin’s position? It is clearly a Pentecostal one. The socialist affirmative action program actually produced more languages:

Until now what has happened has been that the socialist revolution has not diminished but rather increased the number of languages; for, by stirring up the lowest sections of humanity and pushing them on to the political arena, it awakens to new life a number of hitherto unknown or little-known nationalities (Works, vol. 10, p. 141).

Indeed, it led to the creation of new ‘regenerated nations’, that is, ‘new, socialist nations, which have arisen on the ruins of the old nations and are led by the internationalist party of the labouring masses’ (Works, vol. 11, p. 369).

This is nothing less than a Pentecost of languages and peoples. Socialists are clearly Pentecostalists, in in favour of multiplicity and diversity.

But how did these languages, cultures and peoples achieve such a regenerated state? Through a cultural revolution:

In view of this, the Party considered it necessary to help the regenerated nations of our country to rise to their feet and attain their full stature, to revive and develop their national cultures, widely to develop schools, theatres and other cultural institutions functioning in the native languages (Works, vol. 11, p. 369).

Or in more detail, for anyone who is serious about cultural revolution:

What is needed is to cover the country with an extensive network of schools functioning in the native languages, and to supply them with staffs of teachers who know the native languages.

What is needed is to nationalise—that is, to staff with members of the given nation—all the administrative apparatus, from Party and trade-union to state and economic.

What is needed is widely to develop the press, the theatre, the cinema and other cultural institutions functioning in the native languages.

Why in the native languages?—it may be asked. Because only in their native, national languages can the vast masses of the people be successful in cultural, political and economic development (Works, vol 11, p. 370).

Cultural revolution is therefore the Pentecost of languages and peoples. The result is that the message may be heard in ‘differentiated tongues’, ‘other languages’, with people from ‘every nation under heaven’ hearing the message in their ‘native language’. As for how many languages Stalin knew, that is still a matter of debate.


By 1939 Stalin began to include the creation of a Socialist intelligentsia in his definition:

As regards the cultural standard of the people, the period under review has been marked by a veritable cultural revolution. The introduction of universal compulsory elementary education in the languages of the various nations of the U.S.S.R., an increasing number of schools and scholars of all grades, an increasing number of college-trained experts, and the creation and growth of a new intelligentsia, a Soviet intelligentsia – such is the general picture of the cultural advancement of our people.

I think that the rise of this new, Socialist intelligentsia of the people is one of the most important results of the cultural revolution in our country. (Works vol. 14, p. 391)

Stalin and minorities 01a


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