Although funded by the People's Commissariat for Education of Soviet Russia, the Proletkult organization sought autonomy from state control, a demand which brought it into conflict with the Communist Party hierarchy and the Soviet state bureaucracy. Some top party leaders, such as V.I. Lenin, sought to concentrate state funding on the basic education of the working class rather than on whimsical artistic endeavors. He and others also saw in Proletkult a hotbed of bourgeois intellectuals and potential political oppositionists.
At its peak in 1920, Proletkult had 84,000 members actively enrolled in about 300 local studios, clubs, and factory groups, with an additional 500,000 members participating in its activities on a more casual basis.
The earliest roots of the Proletarian Culture movement, better known as Proletkult, are found in the aftermath of the failed 1905-1907 Revolution against Nicholas II of Russia. The censorship apparatus of the Tsarist regime had stumbled briefly during the upheaval, broadening horizons, but the revolution had ultimately failed, resulting in dissatisfaction and second-guessing, even within Bolshevik Party ranks.
In the aftermath of the Tsar's reassertion of authority a radical political tendency known as the "Left Bolsheviks" emerged, stating their case in opposition to party leader Lenin. This group, which included such luminaries as philosophers Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky and writer Maxim Gorky, argued that the intelligentsia-dominated Bolsheviks must begin following more inclusive tactics and working to develop more working class political activists to assume leadership roles in the next round of anti-Tsarist revolution.
Among the Left Bolsheviks, Anatoly Lunacharsky in particular had been intrigued with the possibility of making use of art as a means to inspire revolutionary political action. In addition, together with the celebrated Gorky, Lunacharsky hoped to found a "human religion" around the idea of socialism, motivating individuals to serve a greater good outside of their own narrow self-interests.
Working along similar lines simultaneously was Lunacharsky's brother-in-law Bogdanov, who even in 1904 had published a weighty philosophical tome called Empiriomonism which attempted to integrate the ideas of non-Marxist thinkers Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius into the socialist edifice. (Lunacharsky had studied under Avenarius in Zurich and was responsible for introducing Bogdanov to his ideas.) Bogdanov believed that the socialist society of the future would require forging a fundamentally new perspective of the role of science, ethics, and art with respect to the individual and the state.
Together all these ideas of Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Gorky, and their co-thinkers came to be known in the language of the day as "god-building" (bogostroitel'stvo).