César Vallejo
Original publication: marxists.org
Translation: Roderic Day
Editing: Alice C. Malone

Duel Between Two Literatures (1931)

César Vallejo (1892-1938), Peruvian communist, is considered one of the most important and innovative poets of the 20th century.

Article originally published in Universidad magazine, at the National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru.

Despite the desires of its pontiffs and overseers, the capitalist literary process does not manage to escape the germs that creep into it from the base structure on which it rests, and to which it is tethered. The inherent contradictions — the growing and mortal contradictions which we discuss in terms of the capitalist economy — circulate equally throughout bourgeois art, sowing the seeds of its own destruction. This means, likewise, that the resistance that those intellectual chieftains put up to stop this literature from dying is in vain and useless, because before us we have a determined fact, in rigorously objective terms, through none other than the forces and frameworks of economic production, however distant and alien to the sectarian, professional, and individual interests of the writer. Capitalist literature cannot then but reflect — unavoidably, I may add — the slow and painful agony of the society from which it hails.

What are the most striking features of decadence in bourgeois literature? These features have been exposed too exhaustingly to relitigate them here. They can all, however, be linked by one common trait: the depletion of the social content of words. The verb is empty. It suffers from an acute and incurable social consumption. Nobody says anything to anybody. The relationship of man to men finds itself interrupted. The vocabulary with which the individual refers to the collective finds itself truncated and mushed before it leaves the mouth of the individual. We are mute, even while mired in incomprehensible verbosity. It’s the confusion of language, arising from the exalted individualism at the base of bourgeois politics and economics. The desires of the untrammeled individual — becoming the richest, the happiest, the dictator of a nation, or the kingpin of oil — has suffused everything in egoism, even words themselves. Our vocabulary drowns in individualism. The word — the most human of all social relations — has thus lost all of its essence and collective attributes.

There is an unexpressed awareness, in everyday life, that we all notice and feel; a social drama of sheer confusion. Nobody understands anybody else. The interests of one speak in a tongue that the interests of another cannot understand. How can the buyer and the seller, the ruler and the subject, the rich and the poor, understand each other? We all also realize that this confusion of language isn’t, and cannot be, a permanent thing, that it must end as soon as possible. We know that in order for it to end, there is but one common solution: justice, the great equalizer, the great coordinator of interests.

In the meantime, the bourgeois writer continues constructing his works on the basis of the particular interests and egoism of the social class from which they hail, and for which they write. What are these works about? What do they say? What do men say in them? What is the social content of their words? In the themes and trends of bourgeois literature there is nothing but selfishness and, naturally, only selfish people take pleasure in writing it and reading it. Works of a bourgeois nature, or written by a bourgeois author, are to the taste of none other than the bourgeois reader. When another kind of man — a worker, a peasant, even a bourgeois freed from his bourgeois upbringing — lays eyes on bourgeois literature, he turns away in apathy or in revulsion. The interplay of interests on which such literature feeds does speak, but it speaks a language that is eccentric and alien to the common and shared interests of humanity. Words in it appear incomprehensible and inexpressive. Words such as faith, love, freedom, good, passion, truth, pain, effort, harmony, work, luck, and justice lay empty, or are packed with meanings and sentiments contrary to those which the words actually refer to. Even the terms life, god, and history are wronged or hollowed-out. Variety for its own sake and the concept of deceit dominate the theme, the structure, and the overall impression one gets from these works. Proletarian readers flee from or boycott this literature. This is what markedly happens when they are faced with the majority of capitalist authors and works.

What comes next?

In the same way that the proletariat is rapidly climbing to the top rung of organization and direction of the world economic system, so also does it create a universal class consciousness, and with it, its own sensibility, capable of creating and consuming a literature of its own — that is, proletarian literature. This new literature is coming into being and developing in proportion correlated with and parallel to — in breadth and depth — the world’s proletariat, and its degree of class consciousness. Since this population today encompasses nine-tenths of humanity and since, on the other hand, actual class consciousness gains ground with almost half of the workers of the world, it turns out that proletarian literature is dominating almost entirely the world intellectual production.

What are the most striking features of surging proletarian literature? The clearest feature is that it returns to words their universal social content, filling them with the substrate of a new collective meaning, more exuberant and pure, with a more natural and human expression and eloquence. The worker, unlike the boss, aspires to the social understanding of all, to the full understanding of beings and interests. His literature speaks, therefore, a Language that wants to be common to all men. To the confusion of language of the capitalist world, the worker wants to respond by replacing it with the Esperanto of coordination and social justice, a language born of language. Will proletarian literature manage this rennaissance and cleansing of the verb, the supreme and most fertile of instincts of solidarity of men?

Yes. It will manage it. It is managing it already. We do not exaggerate when we affirm that perhaps even today’s working class literature already contains superior artistic value, in many respects, to that of bourgeois production. I speak of working class literature in a way that includes all works in which, one way or another, the spirit and interests of the proletariat prevails: be it through theme, through psychological subtext, or due to the sensibilities of the writer. This is how we find among working class literature authors of diverse class upbringing, such as Upton Sinclair, Feodor Gladkov, Ilya Selvinsky, Kirchen, Boris Pasternak, Liam O’Flaherty, and others whose works are nevertheless bound by a sincere and defined interpretation of the world of the working masses.

In short, as far as this matter goes, it is clear that proletarian literature commands the attention and respect of the best bourgeois writers, an attention and respect that finds expression in the frequency with which they delve — albeit only episodically — into the lives and the struggles and the revolutionary course of the working masses. This attitude reveals two things: sometimes a snobbery proper to byzantine intelligence, and sometimes the instability and hesitation characteristic of a dying ideology.

In short, all of these considerations testify, on the one hand, to the impending overwhelming offensive of proletarian literature, and, on the other, to the defeat and routing of capitalist literature.

As we can see, when it comes to this crucible of history, the lines on the ground have already been drawn.