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Issue #1760      December 7, 2016

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

Socialist Realism

The arts scene in post-revolutionary Russia was one of hectic activity and ferment. Initially there were those – mainly youngsters – who thought that anything that shocked their elders must be revolutionary, so obscenity must be super revolutionary! We’ve all met “revolutionaries” of that stamp.

Lenin at the Third KomSoMol Convention by Aleksandr Lomykin.

That trend fell away in the course of the Civil War and the Intervention. During the New Economic Policy, when limited private enterprise was encouraged while the economy tried to recover from the ravages of war, some revolutionary artists enthusiastically embraced the theory known as Futurism. The Futurists believed that the Revolution required a complete rupture from the past and, therefore, so did Soviet art.

The collection of Futurist art in the Russian Museum in Leningrad (as St Petersburg was called when I saw it) is breathtakingly brilliant. However, its applicability to the complexities of laying the foundations for building a new society was problematic. The main contending theory, realism, was much more applicable and certainly more useful.

By the mid to late 1920s, Soviet art, literature and cinema had matured and Soviet cinema had actually begun to wow the world. Each individual artist, however, was still essentially feeling their way. Those who turned to film, for example, had to experiment with and then discard concepts such as “eccentric acting” and mechanistic acting, or that films should have no actors at all.

Then, at the beginning of the ’30s, with the collectivisation of agriculture completed, the building of Socialism could begin in earnest and art – in all its forms – was perceived as an extraordinarily valuable means of educating the people of this new society, both for their own intrinsic benefit and as a way of furthering the development of socialism.

The writer Maxim Gorki, whose life experiences had made him a committed socialist, wrote an article in 1933 entitled “Socialist Realism”. Gorki’s contention was that, in the conditions of trying to build a socialist society while combating imperialist subversion, sabotage and war, committed Communist writers could not afford to waste their artistic gift on producing inconsequential or frivolous works.

If they were serious about Socialism, then they had no option but to dedicate their art to the great cause of the liberation of humanity. Art, as the slogan of the time went, is a weapon! For the artist, that meant embracing Realism, the approach to art that involved peeling back the surface to peer underneath to ascertain what really made something tick, especially social phenomena.

But not just Realism, said Gorki, but Socialist Realism, realism with a political purpose, realism applied to furthering the Revolution. Gorki enlarged on the concept at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934. Seldom has such a simple concept been misunderstood – and misrepresented – by so many.

Anti-Communists from the “left” and the right lampooned the idea, reducing it to a collection of irrational formulae: the central character of a “socialist realist” story (or film or painting) had to be a worker, preferably a heroic worker such as a tractor driver. Another central character had to be a Communist who could (and invariably did) elucidate the politics of the story for the benefit of the characters and the reader.

In this bastardised version of socialist realism, the workers are always united and they always win, whereas in real life they often aren’t and they often don’t. Ironically, the story of a defeat can be far more illuminating than any number of routine formulaic success stories.

Instead of being an approach to art applicable across all genres, socialist realism was reduced to the status of being a genre itself. This was frequently the situation in Australia. One artist, who actually taught “socialist realism” for the CPA, happily admitted in her reminiscences that she did her “socialist realist paintings in the morning and her abstract paintings in the afternoon”!

The same artist/teacher was told that every work of art “had to have a message”. Whenever she couldn’t readily determine what message one of her own paintings contained, she actually wrote an appropriate “message” across the painting! Crude? You think? And she taught the subject!

But enough of that! Just thinking about it makes me cranky. As does the claim that the famine in the Ukraine at the beginning of the ’30s was all part of a Bolshevik plot to force poor peasants to join their farms together into large collectives! How could killing off poor people (and it wasn’t the rich peasants who starved) possibly help win support for the Soviets?

The claim that Stalin was to blame for the famine was popular among anti-Communists in the 1930s: the Ukraine was satisfactorily a long way away so stories couldn’t be easily checked; the Nazis and the US capitalist media both promoted the tale enthusiastically; and any contrary views could be (and were) dismissed as “Soviet propaganda”.

The person who gave the story the imprimatur of academic support was an extreme right-wing British “scholar” lecturing at the notorious Hoover Institute in California, Robert Conquest. His two books “exposing” Stalin’s (and Communism’s crimes) were The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror Famine.

Conquest had flirted briefly with membership in the Communist Party while a student at Oxford, but had found capitalism more attractive and certainly more rewarding. Becoming an extreme anti-Communist, he was ultimately given the honour of becoming an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He was a pillar of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom and a stalwart defender of the Cold War.

Like other confirmed cold Warriors, Conquest was unfazed when the opening of the Communist Party of the Soviet Unions’ archives in the early ‘90s failed to support the claims of millions of deaths. He remained stalwart in his contempt for the Soviet Union and every level of its leadership, telling an audience at San Francisco’s Independent Institute in 1992 when receiving an award that “the rank-and-file of the old Soviet ruling class really were ... mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic and ignorant.”

His faithful service to the ruling class was rewarded in 2005 when that pillar of democracy George W Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Was Conquest concerned at the number of deaths that could be laid at Bush’s door? I doubt it.

Next article – Voices for peace – Guam calling

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