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Alliance Marxist-Leninist: The Problem of Pablo Picasso

The Problem of Pablo Picasso

(1881-1973)

CONTENTS
Introduction
Pablo Picasso — Early Years
Developing Cubism
Guernica — The Bombing
Guernica — The Painting
Impact of Picasso and Guernica on Russian Discussions Upon Socialist Realist Art
Post Second World War – ‘Becoming a communist, Picasso hoped to come out of exile’.
Conclusion
Bibliography

Introduction

Picasso poses a problem for the supporters of Marxist-Leninist view of socialist art.

What ideology – both subjectively and objectively – did he represent? What are the advocates of realism in the arts to make of Picasso’s love of gross anatomical distortions? How do most people react to his, perhaps most famous work – “Guernica” – and what does it signify? And finally, what was his relation to the Communist Party?

We contend that Picasso’s story is one of a gifted artist, who was situated at a major turning point in history, between the time of the “pure, isolated individual” and a time that history was rushing forwards because of the consolidated action of masses. At this time, artists (like everybody else) were confronted with a choice. Many took the wrong turn — towards an isolationism, towards a “renunciation of reality.” One art historian explains this as the end of approximately 400 years of art history that had been till then, steadily moving towards a goal of more and better “reality.” In its place was substituted a “form of existence surpassing and incompatible with reality,” an existence that is “ugly”:

“The great reactionary movement of the century takes effect in the realm of art as a rejection of impressionism change which, in some respects, forms a deeper incision in the history of art than all the changes of style since the Renaissance, leaving the artistic tradition of naturalism fundamentally unaffected. It is true that there had always been a swinging to and fro between formalism and anti-formalism, but the function of art being true to life and faithful to nature bad never been questioned in principle since the Middle Ages. In this respect impressionism was the climax and the end of a development which had lasted more than four hundred years. Post-impressionist art is the first to renounce all illusion of reality on principle and to express its outlook on life by the deliberate deformation of natural objects. Cubism, constructivism, futurism, expressionism, dadaism, and surrealism turn away with equal determination from nature-bound and reality-affirming impressionism.

But impressionism itself prepares the ground for this development in so far as it does not aspire to an integrating description of reality, to a confrontation of the subject with the objective world as a whole, but marks rather the beginning of that process which has been called the “annexation” of reality by art (Andre Malraux: Psychologie de l’art). Post-impressionist art can no longer be called in any sense a reproduction of nature; its relationship to nature is one of violation. We can speak at most of a kind of magic naturalism, of the production of objects which exist alongside reality, but do not wish to take its place. Confronted with the works of Braque, Chagall, Rouault, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dali, we always feel that, for all their differences, we are in a second world, a super-world which, however many features of ordinary reality it may still display, represents a form of existence surpassing and incompatible with this reality. Modern art is, however, anti-impressionistic in yet another respect: it is a fundamentally “ugly” art, forgoing the euphony, the fascinating forms, tones and colours, of impressionism.”

Hauser, Arnold. “The Social history of Art” — Volume 4: ‘Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age'”; New York; nd; p. 229-230.

We will argue that Picasso took the ‘wrong turn” – rejecting realism – only to partially correct himself under the influence of a political realisation of the horrors of war and capitalism.

Picasso forsook his earlier brilliance in works of a realistic nature, to ‘invent’ Cubism. Both Cubism, and other related art movements such as Surrealism, and Dadaism — were pained attempts to come to terms with a rapidly changing society in the midst or the wake of the catastrophes of the First World War. It was the expression of an intense “hopelessness” of man’s possibility of changing anything — for example, averting the First World War. It was also explicitly anti-rational:

“It arose from a mood of disillusionment engendered by the First World War, to which some artists reacted with irony, cynicism, and nihilisim…. the name (French for ‘hobby-horse’) was chosen by inserting a penknife at random in the pages of a dictionary, thus symbolizing the anti-rational stance of the movement. Those involved in it emphasised the illogical and the absurd, and exaggerated the role of chance in artistic creation…… its techniques involving accident and chance were of great importance to the Surrealists and … later Abstract Expressionists”;

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p.147.

In the 1918 Berlin Dada Manifesto for instance, life is characterised as where:

“Life appears a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours, and spiritual rhythms, which is taken unmodified, with all the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality.”

Cork, Richard “A Bitter Truth — Avant Garde Art & The Great War; London 1994; p.257.

Dadaism involved a “nihilism” [“”total rejection of current religious beliefs or morals.. A form of scepticism, involving the denial of all existence,” “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” Volume 2; Oxford 1973; ; p.1404.]. The nihilism of these movements “not only questions the value of art but of the whole human situation. For, as it is stated in another of its manifestos, “measured by the standard of eternity, all human action is futile”:

“The historical importance of dadaism and surrealism (lies)…. in the fact that they draw attention to the blind alley …. at the end of the symbolist movement, to the sterility of a literary convention which no longer had any connection with real life …. Mallarme and the symbolists thought that every idea that occurred to them was the expression of their innermost nature; it was a mystical belief in the “magic of the word” which made them poets. The dadaists and the surrealists now doubt whether anything objective, external, formal, rationally organized is capable of expressing man at all, but they also doubt the value of such expression. It is really “inadmissible” – they think, that a man should leave a trace behind him. (Andre Breton: Les Pas perdus, 1924). Dadaism, therefore, replaces the nihilism of aesthetic culture by a new nihilism, which not only questions the value of art but of the whole human situation. For, as it is stated in one of its manifestos, “measured by the standard of eternity, all human action is futile.” (Tristn Tzara: Sept manifestes dada, 1920).”

Hauser, Arnold. “The Social history of Art” — Volume 4: ‘Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age'”; New York; nd; p.232-233.

Paradoxically, contrasting to the Dadaists, at least in some ways, Picasso exalted the individual. One can also see in him the epitome of the bourgeois view of an artist as someone obsessed by not only “art,” but of acting the part of “an artiste” – so that their life story is in itself a “work of art.” So Picasso said of artists that what was important was “who they are, not what they did”:

“It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cezanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacquestmile Blanche, even if the apples he had painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cezanne’s anxiety, that’s Cezanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.”

Berger, John.”The Success & Failure of Picasso”; New York; 1980; p.5; quoting Alfred H. Barr; “Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art”; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946.

Berger perceptively places Picasso’s exalted view of “artistic creativity” – as a remnant of the Romantics of the 19th century, for whom “art” was a “way of life.” Berger goes on to show that this was a form of a reaction to the bourgeois, monied “Midas” touch — a touch that changes all relations including artistic relations — to one of a mere commerce. While this exaltation of “creativity” was of value to the Romantics, in the 20th century nexus of individual versus masses, this self-centredness could be and was, hideously out of place.

Pablo Picasso – Early Years

Picasso was born in Spain, but lived and worked most of his life in Paris. His artistic mediums included sculpture, graphic arts, ceramics, poster design, as well as fine art. He was probably the most famous and prolific artist of the 20th century. As a son of a painter, he was a precocious master of line, even as a child. It is said that as a baby, is said to have been ‘lapiz’ – pencil. His work incorporated a number of styles, and he denied any logical sequence to his art development:

‘The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or future. I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I haven’t hesitated to adopt them.’

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 431.

At this early stage (1900-1904) Picasso expressed artistic sentiments on behalf of the under-priviliged. For example, during his “Blue Period,” he painted several examples of a realistic and moving art:

“he took his subjects from the poor and social outcasts, the predominant mood of his paintings was one of at bottom opposed to the irrationalist elements of slightly sentimentalized melancholy expressed through cold ethereal blue tones

(La Vie, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1903). He also did a number of powerful engravings in a similar vein (The Frugal Repast, d 1904).” [See below].

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 431.

Pablo Picasso. “Woman Ironing” (La Repasseuse), 1904.

Pablo Picasso, “Le Repas Frugal,” 1904.

By 1904 Picasso now in Paris, was influenced by the Fauvist movement, as well as African sculpture and Cezanne’s works. He began to distort anatomical forms, in order to “disregard any conventional idea of beauty” (“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (MOMA, New York, 1906-7)[ See below]. At that time, these results were not viewed favourably, and “d’Avignon” was not publicly exhibited until 1937. But it marked the start of Cubism, which Picasso began with Braque and Gris from 1907 up to the First World War.

Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” 1907.

Developing Cubism

So what was Cubism? It was a movement begun by Picasso with Braque, and later Gris, and was named after their tendency to use cubic motifs, as can be seen above:

“Movement in painting and sculpture, … was originated by Picasso and Braque. They worked so closely during this period – ‘roped together like mountaineers’ in Braque’s memorable phrase – that at times it is difficult to differentiate their hands. The movement was broadened by Juan Gris,…he name originated with the critic Louis Vauxcelles (following a mot by Matisse), who, in a review of the Braque exhibition in the paper Gil Blas, 14 November 1908, spoke of ‘cubes’ and later of ‘bizarreries cubiques.'”

I.Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 144.

The cubists rejected an “apparent” reality to be conveyed by normal rules of perspective and modelling. They aimed to show all sides of reality, by displaying a moving history of how objects look over time, and from simultaneously observed but differing, vantage points. It was a “cerebral” exercise therefore, and it rejected any simple notion of how “an object looked”:

“Cubism made a radical departure from the idea of art as the imitation of nature that had dominated European painting and sculpture since the Renaissance. Picasso and Braque abandoned traditional notions of perspective, foreshortening, and modelling, and aimed to represent solidity and volume in a two-dimensional plane without converting the two-dimensional canvas illusionistically into a three-dimensional picture-space. In so far as they represented real objects, their aim was to depict them as they are known and not as they partially appear at a particular moment and place. For this purpose many different aspects of the object might be depicted simultaneously; the forms of the object were analysed into geometrical planes and these were recomposed from various simultaneous points of view into a combination of forms. To this extent Cubism was and claimed to be realistic, but it was a conceptual realism rather than an optical and Impressionistic realism. Cubism is the outcome of intellectualized rather than spontaneous vision. “

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 144.

As a movement, following its’ birth with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, it rapidly evolved into other movements — but it was one of the key sources of abstractionism in art:

“The harbinger of the new style was Picasso’s celebrated picture Les Demoiselles d`Avignon (MOMA, New York, 1907), with its angular and fractured forms. It is customary to divide the Cubism of Picasso and Braque into two phases-Analytical’ and ‘Synthetic’. In the first and more austere phase, which lasted until 1912, forms were analysed into predominantly geometrical structures and colour was extremely subdued-usually virtually monochromatic – so as not to be a distraction. In the second phase colour became much stronger and shapes more decorative, and elements such as stencilled lettering and pieces of newspaper were introduced into paintings…Cubism, as well as being one of the principal sources for abstract art, was infinitely adaptable, giving birth to numerous other movements, among them Futurism, Orphism, Purism, and Vorticism…”

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 144.

But all these new movements propound a view of life that is “form-destroying.” Picasso thus easily flips in and out of several art movements, all the time exploring ever more “un-real” and deconstructed forms. At the same time, he is intent upon eroding any sense of a “unity” – whether of personality, of styles, view of the world etc. All reflect the deep contradictions of 20th century capitalism:

“Cubism and constructivism, on the one side, and expressionism and surrealism, on the other, embody strictly formal and form-destroying tendencies respectively which now appear for the first time side by side in such sharp contradiction. […]

Picasso, who shifts from one of the different stylistic tendencies to the other most abruptly, is at the same time the most representative artist of the present age.

Picasso‘s eclecticism signifies the deliberate destruction of the unity of the personality; his imitations are protests against the cult of originality; his deformation of reality, which is always clothing itself in new forms, in order the more forcibly to demonstrate their arbitrariness, is intended, above all, to confirm the thesis that “nature and art are two entirely dissimilar phenomena.” Picasso turns himself into a conjurer, a juggler, a parodist, [….]

And he disavows not only romanticism, but even the Renaissance, which, with its concept of genius and its idea of the unity of work and style, anticipates romanticism to some extent. He represents a complete break with individualism and subjectivism, the absolute denial of art as the expression of an unmistakable personality. His works are notes and commentaries on reality; they make no claim to be regarded as a picture of a world and a totality, as a synthesis and epitome of existence. Picasso compromises the artistic means of expression by his indiscriminate use of the different artistic styles just as thoroughly and wilfully as do the surrealists by their renunciation of traditional forms. The new century is full of such deep antagonisms, the unity of its outlook on life is so profoundly menaced, that the combination of the furthest extremes, the unification of the greatest contradictions, becomes the main theme, often the only theme, of its art.”

Hauser, Arnold. “The Social history of Art — Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age. Volume 4”; New York; nd; p. 233-234.

Since Picasso is so adept technically, he can continue to simply adopt and then drop styles as he pleases. In 1917 Picasso went to Italy, where he was impressed by Classicism, and incorporated some features of so-called “Monumental Classicism” into the work of the 1920’s (Mother and Child), but he also became involved with Surrealism, and with Andre Breton. The surrealists were interested in “irrationalist elements, and exaltation of chance, and equally to the direct realistic reproduction of dream or subconscious material.” I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p.431.

During this time, he explored images of the Minotaur, the half man half beast drawn from Cretan mythology. Now, the Spanish Civil War erupted. This led to his most famous work, Guernica (Centro Cultural Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1937), which was produced for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1937 to express horror and revulsion at the destruction by bombing of the Basque capital Guernica during the civil war (1936-9).

By this time, Picasso had already become a very rich man already:

“Picasso was rich. Dealers began to buy his work in 1906. By 1909 he employed a aid with apron and cap to wait at table. In 1912, when he painted a picture on a whitewashed wall in Provence, his dealer thought it was worthwhile demolishing the wall and sending the whole painted piece intact to Paris to be remounted by experts on a wooden panel. In 1919 Picasso moved into a large flat in one of the most fashionable quarters of Paris. In 1930 he bought the seventeenth-century Chateau de Boisgeloup as an alternative residence. From the age of twenty-eight Picasso was free from money worries. From the age of thirty-eight he was wealthy. From the age of sixty-five he has been a millionaire.”

Berger, John.”The Success & Failure of Picasso”; New York; 1980; p.5.

Guernica – The Bombing

On 26 April 1937, the German air force was asked by General Franco to bomb the city of Guernica. This city was the ancient heart of the Basque nation, an oppressed nation within the multi-national state of Spain. It had resisted the Francoite fascists, and Franco was determined to subdue it. The city had no defences, and no military importance. The correspondent of ‘The Times” reported on the destruction:

“Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters did not cease unloading on the town bombs. And incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine gun those of the civil population who had taken refuge in the fields.

The whole of Guernica was soon in flames, except the historic Casa de Juntas, with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Senor, not Rey Vizcaya.”

Antony Blunt. “Picasso’s Guernica”; Toronto; 1969; Oxford & Toronto, p.7-8.

Perhaps however the real measure of the horror is best given by the first eye-witness account, from a priest — Father Alberto de Onaindia:

“We reached the outskirts of Guernica just before five o’clock. The streets were busy with the traffic of market day. Suddenly we heard the siren, and trembled. People mere running about in all directions, abandoning everything they possessed, some hurrying into the shelters, others running into the hills. Soon an enemy airplane appeared … and when he was directly over the center he dropped three bombs. Immediately airwards we saw a squadron of seven planes, followed a little later by six more, and this in turn by a third squadron of five more. And Guernica was seized by a terrible panic.

I left the car by the side of the road and we took refuge in a storm drain. The water came up to our ankles. From our hiding place we could see everything that happened without being seen. The airplanes came low, flying at two hundred meters. As soon as we could leave our shelter, we ran into the woods, hoping to put a safe distance between us and the enemy. But the airmen saw us and went after us. The leaves hid us. As they did not know exactly where we were, they aimed their machineguns in the direction they thought we were traveling. We heard the bullets ripping through branches and the sinister sound of splintering wood. The milicianos and I followed the flight patterns of the airplanes, and we made a crazy journey through the trees, trying to avoid them. Meanwhile, women, children, and old men were falling in heaps, like flies, and everywhere we saw lakes of blood.

I saw an old peasant standing alone in a field: a machine-gun bullet killed him. For more than an hour these planes, never more than a few hundred meters in altitude, dropped bomb after bomb on Guernica. The sound of the explosions and of the crumbling houses cannot be imagined. Always they traced on the air the same tragic flight pattern, as they flew all over the streets of Guernica. Bombs fell by the thousands. Later we saw bomb craters. Some were sixteen meters in diameter and eight meters deep.

The airplanes left around seven o’clock, and then there came another wave of them, this time flying at an immense altitude. They were dropping incendiary bombs on our martyred city. The new bombardment lasted thirty-five minutes, sufficient to transform the town into an enormous furnace. Even then I realized the terrible purpose of this new act of vandalism. They were dropping incendiary bombs to convince tie world that the Basques had torched their own city. The destruction went on altogether for two hour. and forty-five minutes. When the bombing was over the people left their shelters. I saw no one crying. Stupor was written on all their faces. Eyes fixed on Guernica, we were completely incapable of believing what we saw.”

In Martin, Russell. “Picasso’s War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World”; 2002, New York; p. 40-42.

Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, commanded the Condor Legion, and planned that first blast bombs would destroy all city-centre buildings; then that the townspeople would be strafed with machine-gun fire; and finally, that incendiary bombs would set fire to the rubble. Four days later, he reported his success:

“Gernika literally levelled to the ground. Attack carried out with 250-kilogram and incendiary bombs-about one-third of the latter. When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke everywhere already [from von Moreau’s first assault]; no, body could identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburbs, and they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s toppled houses and destroyed the water mains. The incendiaries now could spread and become effective. The material of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches, and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation…. Bomb craters can still be seen in the streets, simply terrific. Town completely blocked off for at least 24 hours, perfect conditions for a great victory, if only the troops had followed through.”

In Martin, Russell. “Picasso’s War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World”; 2002, New York; p. 42-43.

Russell Martin points to the innovative strategy that was utlized of air-raid induced terror:

“The three-hour campaign had been efficient, accurate, highly effective, and it was precisely what was proscribed in German military strategist M.K.L. Dertzen’s Grundsdtze der Wehrpolitik, which had been published two years before and which von Richthofen had taken very much to heart: “If cities are destroyed by flames, if women and children are victims of suffocating gases, if the population in open cities far from the front perish due to bombs dropped from planes, it will be impossible for the enemy to continue the war. Its citizens will plead for an immediate end to hostilities.”

In Martin, Russell. “Picasso’s War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World”; 2002, New York; p. 42-43.

Guernica – The Painting

Picasso had not been especially political up to this time, although as a youth in Barcelona the vigorous anarchist movements there had influenced him. But with the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso took sides. In May 1937 he made his position clear in a public statement:

“The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? When the rebellion began, the legally elected and democratic republican government of Spain appointed me director of the Prado Museum, a post which I immediately accepted. In the panel on which I am working which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death…”

Barr, Alfred. “Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art”; New York; 1946; p.202; cited by Blunt A; Ibid; p. 9.

“‘No: painting is not there just to decorate the walls of a flat. It is a means of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”
Cited at: http://www.tamu.edu/mocl/picasso/tour/t05c.html

He immediately did a pair of etchings entitled Sueho y mentira de Franco (‘Dream and Lie of Franco) which he issued with an accompanying poem.

Picasso, “Dream and Lie of Franco,” 1937.

In January 1937, the Republican elected Government, invited Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion in the International Exhibition of Paris in 1938. Following the bombing of Guernica, Picasso worked in a frenzy completing the huge work in ten days.

The cover of “Alliance Marxist-Leninist” Issue 52 shows the painting. But for a larger view go here:

Web-site for Guernica at: http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/personal/DHart/Images/WarArt/Picasso/Guernica/Guernica.JPG

Picasso, “Guernica,” 1937.

Blunt describes the large canvas as follows:

“The painting is on canvas and measures 11 ft. 6 in. by 25 ft. 8 in. It is almost monochrome, that is to say, it is executed in various shades of grey, varying from a completely neutral tint to slightly purplish and bluish greys at one extreme, and brownish greys at the other.

The scene takes place in darkness, in an open space surrounded by schematically indicated buildings, which presumably stand for a public square in the town of Guernica. At the top is a strange lamp in the form of an eye, with an electric bulb as the iris.

The actors in the scene fall into two groups. The active protagonists are three animals – the bull, the wounded horse, and the winged bird just visible in the left background-and two human beings, the dead soldier, and the woman above and to the right, who leans out of a window and holds out a lamp to illuminate the whole stage. They are accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of three women: the screaming mother carrying a dead baby on the left, the woman rushing in from the right, and above her one falling in a house which is collapsing in flames.
These figures – human and animal – and the symbolism attached to them were not evolved at a single blow but have a long and complicated history, not only in the work of Picasso himself but in European art of earlier periods.”

Blunt, Antony, “Picasso’s Guernica”; Toronto; 1969 OUP, p.13

Apart from a general sense of horror -what does it all mean? What are the bull and the horse doing here so prominently?

“As regards the meaning of the picture, Picasso has only supplied a slight clue about the central symbols. The horse, he said in an interview, represents the people, and the bull brutality and darkness. When pressed by his interlocutor to say whether he meant that the bull stood for Fascism, he refused to agree and stuck to his original statement. … These indications are tantalizingly slender, but it is possible, by a study of Picasso’s previous work, particularly in the 1930’s, to deduce more about the symbols used in Guernica and about the artist’s intentions in general. The central theme, the conflict between bull and horse, is one which has interested the artist all his life…”

Blunt, Antony, “Picasso’s Guernica”; Toronto; 1969; p.14.

Prior to Guernica, Picasso had long been depicting battles between good and evil, where the Minotaur takes a prominent place. But these symbolic interpretations are much less important than the overall first impact – of the weeping women. There can be little doubt that any spectator who is first shown this picture more likely reacts immediately to the wailing women – one with an obviously dead child, one in a burning house, and the dead or gravely injured soldier holding a weapon who is being trampled by a terrified horse. The general effect is one of a terrible searing scene. Moreover, an original draft had an equally potent image – a clenched fist:

“In…the drawing of 9 May…the main interest is now focused on the dead soldier, who fills the whole left-hand part of the foreground, lying with his head on the right, his left hand clasping a broken sword,” his right arm raised and his fist clenched. That is to say, Picasso has taken the theme of the raised arm with clenched fist, which in the drawing played a quite minor part in a corner of the composition, and has given it a completely new significance by attaching it to the central figure of the composition. The arm of the soldier now forms a strong vertical, which is emphasized by the axis of the lamp, continued downwards in a line cutting across the body of the horse, and by another vertical line drawn arbitrarily to the left of the arm. The vertical strip thus formed is made the basis of the geometrical scheme on which the composition is built up.”

Blunt, Antony: “Picasso’s Guernica”; Toronto; 1969 OUP, p.39.

The drawing can be seen at: http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/personal/DHart/Images/WarArt/Picasso/Guernica/DoraMaarsPhotos/State1-11May1937.JPG

Picasso, “Guernica,” original sketch, 1937.

However Picasso then removed the raised arm. Why? What we can be sure of is that at that time Picasso was not associated with the Communist party, and the symbol of the clenched fist was and is – an explicitly communist one. Therefore, the overall sense of the painting remains one of a horror — and not that of a RESISTANCE to the hells of war.

And naturally, the “distortions of forms” – the late Picasso speciality – remains. But — having said that – what impact has the painting had on the numerous people who have seen it or its reproduction? An interesting experience is to watch those who are looking at this gigantic painting – they are mesmerised and yet, horrified at the same time.

There is absolutely no doubt that the picture has become iconic in its symbolic rejection of war and the brutal inhumanity of war.

For those who might still be sceptical of this viewpoint, it should be remembered that during the prelude to the inhumane, and illegal 2003 war against Iraq, a tapestry copy of “Guernica” – that hangs in the foyer at the United Nations HQ at New York, was shrouded during televised interviews.

Why does it seem that this painting evokes such resonant feelings? After all, it is in its form-distortions – anti-realistic. In fact “abstract” painting rarely evokes a “positive” audience reaction. Recall for instance the furore as the “critics” – the servants of the capitalist classes waxed eloquent about the piles of bricks at the Tate – the public roared its’ incomprehension and its’ disapproval. But this has not ever happened with “Guernica.” Why?

It is possible that people have become simply more visually sophisticated than they used to be – under the influence of mass printings. Or possibly the knowledge of what happened at Guernica is so widespread – that people can make a quick connection between the intent of the painting – despite the distortion of forms. But, a third point has to be made. That is that perhaps despite the bias of the painter, whose loyalty to “form-distortion” was so deep – it is in fact pretty “realistic.” The horse screaming in agony is – evidently just that. The women howling – can be heard. The heat on the woman burning the bomber house – is felt scorching us. The sounds of the horse trampling on the dead soldier – are bone-jarringly “real.”

Maybe Picasso was a “cubist.” But he left his intellectualised system to one side when he painted this picture.

Picasso also made other great paintings that attacked war, [See “The Charnel House”; MOMA, New York, 1945] and the later Korean War [“Korean women and children being butchered by white men – Massacre in Korea” – see below:]

Pablo Picasso, “Massacre in Korea,” 1951.

All show marked “form-distortion,” but they nonetheless, do convey a clear message. In fact, the non-realistic pictures do resonate. The editors of the “Oxford Dictionary,” claim that:

“In treating such themes Picasso universalized the emotional content by an elaboration of the techniques of expression which had been developed through his researches into Cubism.”

I. Chilvers, H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977; p. 144.

Clearly, these works are not ‘realist’ in any usual meaning, but their meaning is surely explicit. So — are these propagandist posters, or are they art? We would argue that they are more within the realm of progressive propaganda. But, the boundary line is certainly very narrow.

Impact of Picasso and Guernica on Russian Discussions Upon Socialist Realist Art

A mythology prevails, that there was no discussion – nor knowledge of Western art movements in the socialist years of the USSR (up to 1953). But this is patently false, as there is absolutely no doubt that the Russian artistic scene, was affected by currents in the West. Indeed, the height of knowledge and sensible debates about these various movements is the lie to the general bourgeois line that “there was no debate” and “purely dictatorship” in the USSR. Artistic events in the West were treated very seriously and openly. Undoubtedly post-Second World War there was a renewed debate about the principles of “Socialist Realism”:

“At the ninth plenum of the orgkomitet (Organising Committee of the Union of Soviet Artists) held May 1945, some of speakers from the floor brought up the question of innovation in painting, suggesting a new openness to questions of form…Even court painters and official spokesmen of socialist realism appeared with new faces. The critic V Gaposhkin made a visit to Alexandr Gerasimov’s studio and praised highly his unfinished painting of “A Russian Communal Bath’ – a major composition of female nudes with no ideological pretext (plate 230).

That the mood among some artists and critics, was distinctly rebellious may be may be gleaned from a lecture, entitled ‘The Problem of the ‘Impressionism & the problem of the Kartina’, delivered by Nikolai Punin to the Leningrad artists’ union on 13 April 1946 – and from the reaction to it.

Punin’s address was an attempt to install impressionism as the basis for the work of Soviet painters; it amounted not only to a revision of the attitude to impressionism which had been imposed in the art press after the debates of 1939-40, but also to a rejection of some of the entrenched principles of socialist realism. He stressed the variety apparent in the painting of the impressionists extolled them as ‘honest’ and ‘contemporary’. He criticised the characterisation of impressionism as some kind of a system…”

Cullerne Bown, Matthew. “Socialist Realist Painting”; New Haven; 1998; p.223.

Picasso and his evident partisanship, as expressed in “Guernica” became a part of the debate in the USSR:

“At the discussion on 26 April the artist Petr Mazepov pointed out that impressionism led to the formalist art of cubism and fauvism, in which ‘there is no social struggle, the class soul, the party soul, the great soul of the people is absent’. At this point Mazepov was interrupted from the floor: ‘And Picasso?’ ‘And Cezanne?” And ” Guernica, he’s a Communist, a party member.” A little later Mazepov was interrupted again: ‘An artist doesn’t have to take up a proletarian position to express his idea’. [….]

Over the course of both days’ debate, Punin received broad support from well-known Leningrad painters such as Pakulin and Traugot, and from voices from the floor. He summed up on 3 May: ‘If we take cubism or futurism, if we take the work of Picasso, then I personally do not see any formalism in this.’”

Cullerne Bown, Matthew. “Socialist Realist Painting”; New Haven; 1998; p.223.

Punin’s denial of “formalism: in the works of cubism, or futurism – is untenable. Punin was using the works of the 1930’s of Picasso, that had already mutated away from “non-realistic” painting. Actually, it is very telling that the argument “What about Guernica?” – could be used in the midst of this discussion. Even the staunchest supporter of the principles of socialist realism in the USSR, simply had to concede that the painting had emotional power. But the use of Picasso’s open allegiance, by various revisionist sections of the French Communist party even more blatantly.

Post Second World War – ‘Becoming a communist, Picasso hoped to come out of exile’.

Already, his painting of Guernica had shown that Picasso was a republican. During the war years, he stayed in Nazi occupied Paris. On the liberation of Europe, Picasso was to show very publicly his allegiance to the Communist party:

“On October 4 1944, less than six weeks after the liberation of Paris, Pablo Picasso, then 63, joined the French Communist party. To his surprise, the news covered more than half of the front page of the next day’s L’Humanité, the party’s official newspaper, overshadowing reports of the war…….. “Shortly after, in an interview for L’Humanité, Picasso claimed that he had always fought, through the weapons of his art, like a true revolutionary. But he also said that the experience of the second world war had taught him that it was not sufficient to manifest political sympathies under the veil of mythologising artistic expression.

‘I have become a communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy. I have become a communist because the communists are the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union, as they are in my own country, Spain. While I wait for the time when Spain can take me back again, the French Communist party is a fatherland for me. In it I find again all my friends – the great scientists Paul Langevin and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the great writers Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and so many of the beautiful faces of the insurgents of Paris. I am again among brothers.'”

Five days after joining the party Picasso appeared at a ceremony at the Père Lachaise cemetery, organised as a joint memorial for those killed during the Commune of 1871 and in the Nazi occupation of Paris.”

Gertje R Utley. “Picasso was one of the most valued members of the French Communist party – until a portrait of Stalin put him at the centre of an ideological row”. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

Elsewhere he rhetorically asked:

“Have not the Communists been the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union, and in my own Spain? How could I have hesitated? The fear to commit myself? But on the contrary I have never felt freer, never felt more complete. And then I have been so impatient to find a country again: I have always been an exile, now I am no longer one: whilst waiting for Spain to be able to welcome me back, the French Communist Party have opened their arms to me, and I have found there all whom I respect most, the greatest thinkers, the greatest poets, and all the faces of the Resistance fighters in Paris whom I saw and were so beautiful during those August days; again I am among my brothers.”

Berger, John.”The Success & Failure of Picasso”; New York; 1980; p.173.

His allegiance extended to numerous art-related activities. His efforts were recognised by a Stalin Prize, for his famous Poster for Peace, using the image of a dove [See below].

“He also presided over the infamous gathering of the Comité Directeur du Front National des Arts, which drew up the list of artists to be purged for collaborationist activities during the occupation. In 1950 he was awarded the Stalin prize for his involvement in the Mouvement de la Paix, for which he had designed the emblem of a dove. The movement, … was inaugurated in Wroclaw under the aegis of Andrey Zhdanov, secretary of the Soviet central committee.”

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

In addition he was lavish with his money:

“he generously donated time and money to the FCP and associated organisations. He marched with the Front National des Intellectuels and the Front National Universitaire and accepted honorary positions on boards and in organisations. His contributions mostly took the form of paintings donated for sale. In November 1956 alone, the dealer Kahnweiler wrote that he gave on Picasso’s behalf a cheque for FFr3m for Christmas gifts for Enfants des Fusillés de la Résistance, FFr500,000 for the Comité de la Paix, FFr300,000 for the Patriote de Toulouse, FFr750,000 more for the children of war victims and FFr3m (half a million more than the previous year) for a yearly Communist party event. (To give some perspective to these figures, Chrysler bought Picasso’s Le Charnier in 1954 for FFr5m.) “

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

So upon Stalin’s death, it was not un-expected that he would be asked to paint his picture. He had pervasively been asked – on Stalin’s 70th birthday – and refused. This time he agreed. However an orchestrated campaign of vilification suggested that the portrait was “an affront to Stalin” as it “neglected to reflect the emotions of the people.” Picasso had wanted a portrait of “a man of the people.” The French Communist Party was of course under revisionist control at this time. As we have previously described, the revisionists wished to perpetuate a “cult of personality.” Picasso had reverted to a “realistic” style, at a most inconvenient time for them, and in a most inconvenient manner. He “had to be rebuked”:

“In 1953…Stalin died on March 5. Aragon and editor Pierre Daix were preparing an issue of the communist journal “Les Lettres Françaises” when the news broke. Aragon immediately sent a telegram to Picasso. … requesting a drawing of Stalin. Daix and Gilot knew that Picasso, who until then had successfully foiled any hope that he would paint a portrait of Stalin, could not refuse this time. The artist’s homage for Stalin’s 70th birthday in 1949 had been nothing more than a drawing of a glass raised to the dictator’s health, which had shocked the party faithful with its breezy caption, “Staline à ta santé.” [….]

He seems to have used old newspaper photographs as a reference. The portrait shows the young Stalin, face framed by thick, cropped hair, mouth partly hidden under a bushy moustache. The eyes under the strong eyebrows are those of a dreamer and offset by the prominent jawline. Picasso told Geneviève Laporte. [….] that he had wanted to show Stalin as a man of the people, without his uniform and decorations. [….] Aragon and Daix were relieved to find the portrait to their liking. Daix opted for the neutral caption “Staline par Pablo Picasso, March 8 1953”. [….]

The first negative reaction came from the employees of France Nouvelle and L’Humanité, the two papers that shared the same building as Les Lettres françaises, who were appalled by what they considered an affront to Stalin. Daix suspected – correctly, as it turned out – that this was instigated by the party leaders, who saw publication of the portrait as an incursion against the personality cult, and by Auguste Lecur, hardline party secretary, who welcomed this opportunity to chastise Aragon and Les Lettres françaises for the relative independence they claimed. [….]

From the moment the paper appeared at kiosks on March 12, the editorial offices were flooded with outraged calls. On March 18 1953, a damaging communiqué appeared in L’Humanité from the secretariat of the French Communist party, “categorically” disapproving publication of the portrait “by comrade Picasso”.  [….] Aragon was obliged to publish the communiqué in the following issue of Les Lettres françaises, as well as a self-criticism in L’Humanité. The major reproach [….] was that the portrait neglected to reflect the emotions of the public – “the love that the working class feel for the regretted comrade Stalin and for the Soviet Union” – and that it did not do justice to the moral, spiritual, and intellectual personality of Stalin.“

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

But Picasso refused to rise to the bait, and refused to attack the party.

“Picasso, besieged by journalists eager to have him admit that his portrait sought to mock Stalin, refuted any such suggestion. nor did the attacks against him entice Picasso to disparage the party, as some had hoped. “Despite various reports that quoted Picasso as saying that one did not criticise the flowers that were sent to the funeral or the tears that were shed, Gilot [Picassos’ then lover — editor] recalled a more detached attitude. According to her, Picasso replied that aesthetic matters were debatable, that therefore it was the party’s right to criticise him and that he saw no need to politicise the issue. “You’ve got the same situation in the party as in any big family,” he said. “There is always some damn fool to stir up trouble, but you have to put up with him.”

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

 

In private, Picasso gave a rather amusing — if somewhat coarse — attack on the bureaucratic slavish mentality behind this imbroglio:

“In conversation with Daix, who was sent by Aragon to appease him, Picasso speculated:

“Can you imagine if I had done the real Stalin, such as he has become, with his wrinkles, his pockets under the eyes, his warts. A portrait in the style of Cranach! Can you hear them scream? ‘He has disfigured Stalin! He has aged Stalin!'” He continued: “And then too, I said to myself, why not a Stalin in heroic nudity? Yes, but, Stalin nude, and what about his virility? If you take the pecker of the classical sculptor… So small… But, come on, Stalin, he was a true male, a bull. So then, if you give him the phallus of a bull, and you’ve got this little Stalin behind his big thing they’ll cry: But you’ve made him into a sex maniac! A satyr!

“Then if you are a true realist you take your tape measure and you measure it all properly. That’s worse, you made Stalin into an ordinary man. And then, as you are ready to sacrifice yourself, you make a plaster cast of your own thing. Well, it’s even worse. What, you dare take yourself for Stalin! After all, Stalin, he must have had an erection all the time, just like the Greek statues… Tell me, you who knows socialist realism, is that Stalin with an erection or without an erection?”

When in the summer of 1954 (after Stalin’s death) Picasso, thinking aloud, asked Daix: “Don’t you think that soon they will find that my portrait is too nice?” On another occasion, he reflected: “Fortunately I drew the young Stalin. The old one never existed. Only for the official painters.”

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

What is even more interesting — is that despite his “saison en enfer” (season in hell) — Picasso never recanted his allegiance to the party. Even with the social-imperialists attacks on both Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968):

“Picasso later called the year 1953 his “saison en enfer” — his season in hell. He admitted to some friends how shaken he had been by the accusations and humiliations of the scandal. The year is widely believed to signal the end of Picasso’s political commitment. Yet while his cooperation with the party was never again as close as it had been in the years 1944-53, his commitment did not stop. He continued to produce drawings for the press and for poster designs, made supportive appearances at party events, and readily signed petitions and protest declarations initiated by the party. He also never discontinued his financial support. While many left because of the party’s attitude during the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Picasso reaffirmed his loyalty. In an interview with the art critic Carlton Lake in July 1957, he once again confirmed his belief in communism and his intention never to leave the party. In 1962 he was awarded the Lenin prize. In August 1968, speaking with friends, he deplored the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but failed to do so publicly. At the end of that year, he refused once again to speak out against his long-held political beliefs.‘

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

He clearly believed the lies of the revisionist Khruschev, given out at this so-called “secret speech.” But he asked whether “And the workers, are they still masters of their factories, and the peasants, the owners of their land?”:

“After Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist party, in February 1956, in which he reported on the crimes of Stalin’s tyranny, it became impossible for anybody to claim ignorance. Picasso apparently was appalled: “While they asked you to do ever more for the happiness of men… they hung this one and tortured that one. And those were innocents. Will this change? Picasso’s response to detrimental news from the Soviet Union was: “And the workers, are they still masters of their factories, and the peasants, the owners of their land? Well then, everything else is secondary – the only thing that matters is to save the revolution”.

Gertje R Utley. Ibid;. October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

His answer was the workers were still in charge. Of course he was tragically wrong. But then – he was an artist, albeit a flawed one, always twisting away from reality. In the end he was somewhat “straightened” by his late found political allegiance. But – he was still only an artist – and not a political theorist or leader of the working classes. What in an artist is excusable, is inexcusable in those who claim to be “leaders of the vanguard of the working class.” Therefore we will agree, if we are charged that we view Picasso with a benign eye. We would simply counter that this is the same “benign eye” that Marx turned on artists in general, saying of the poet Ferdinand Freiligarth for instance:

“Write Freiligarth a friendly letter. nor need you be over-careful of paying him compliments, for poets, even the best of them, are all plus au moins [more or less], courtisanes and il faut les cajoler, pour les faire chanter [one must cajole them to make them sing]…

A poet, whatever he may be as an homme (man), needs applause and ADMIRATION. This I believe, peculiar to the genre as such. you should not forget the difference between a “poet” and a “critic.'”

Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, January 16, 1852. Volume 39: Collected Works; Moscow; 1983; p.8.

See also Marx and Engels on Art at: http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm

Equally, we cannot accept the line of John Berger, who writes:

“But as an artist with all his powers he was nevertheless wasted.”

Oddly, Berger writes this despite having already pointed out that Picasso had renewed himself by joining the party:

“As a result of Picasso’s joining the Communist Party and taking part in the peace movement, his fame spread even wider than before. His name was quoted in all the socialist countries. His poster of the peace dove was seen on millions of walls and expressed the hopes of all but a handful of the people of the world. The dove became a true symbol: not so much as a result of Picasso’s power as an artist (the drawing of the dove is evocative but superficial), but rather as a result of the power of the movement which Picasso was serving. It needed a symbol and it claimed Picasso’s drawing. That this happened is something of which Picasso can be rightly proud. He contributed positively to the most important struggle of our time. He made further posters and drawings. He lent his name and reputation again and again to encourage others to protest against the threat of nuclear war. He was in a position to use his art as a means of influencing people politically, and, in so far as he was able, he chose to do this consciously and intelligently. I cannot believe that he was in any way mistaken or that he chose the wrong political path.”

Berger, John.”The Success & Failure of Picasso”; New York; 1980; p.173-5.

Well, Picasso bloomed anew with the power of the peoples’ vision. How can Berger recognising this, then say that Picasso was wasted artistically? In the last period of his life, apart from the posters and the variations on the dove of peace he did, Picasso really only painted upon the ceramics made by others. In contrast to Berger, we might suggest that it was his political artistic work, that kept him “artistically alive.”

Conclusion

We argue that Picasso ultimately was on the side of the working classes. A “champagne socialist” he may have been – but he did not need to do what he did. As to the worth of his art – where he retained realist images and forms, he showed a power that people understood. But he was constantly reverting to decadent forms and images that placed at an immediate distance between the people and his art. At his best, he moved people.

And in that troubling work – “Guernica” – he undoubtedly has moved and affected generations who have seen it. Again, it is patently, not a piece of “socialist art,” but despite its obvious anti-realist forms, it conveys a very real, and realistic message: “Down With War!”

Bibliography

Used In this article
Berger, John.”The Success & Failure of Picasso”; New York; 1980;
Blunt, Antony. “Picasso’s Guernica”; Toronto; 1969.
Chilvers, I; H. Osborne, D. Farr. “Oxford Dictionary of Art”; Oxford; 1977;
Cork, Richard “A Bitter Truth — Avant Garde Art & The Great War; London 1994; Cullerne Bown, Matthew. “Socialist Realist Painting”; New Haven;1998;
Hauser, Arnold. “The Social history of Art” — Volume 4: ‘Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age'”; New York; nd;
Martin, Russell. “Picasso’s War. The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World”; 2002, New York.
Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, January 16, 1852. Volume 39: Collected Works; Moscow; 1983.
Utley, Gertje R. “Picasso was one of the most valued members of the French Communist party – until a portrait of Stalin put him at the centre of an ideological row.” October 21, 2000 The Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,385610,00.html

Recommended:
Utley Gertje R “Picasso: The Communist Years”; Yale University Press, 2000.

Websites (NB: All web addresses were correct at time of writing).
“On Line Picasso Project” – a very comprehensive site on Picasso and his works. http://www.tamu.edu/mocl/picasso/tour/t60.html

Art and war – a wonderful site: http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/personal/DHart/ResponsesToWar/Art/StudyGuides/Picasso.html

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The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left

Gabriel Rockhill, Ph.D.v

It is often presumed that intellectuals have little or no political power. Perched in a privileged ivory tower, disconnected from the real world, embroiled in meaningless academic debates over specialized minutia, or floating in the abstruse clouds of high-minded theory, intellectuals are frequently portrayed as not only cut off from political reality but as incapable of having any meaningful impact on it. The Central Intelligence Agency thinks otherwise.

As a matter of fact, the agency responsible for coups d’état, targeted assassinations and the clandestine manipulation of foreign governments not only believes in the power of theory, but it dedicated significant resources to having a group of secret agents pore over what some consider to be the most recondite and intricate theory ever produced. For in an intriguing research paper written in 1985, and recently released with minor redactions through the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA reveals that its operatives have been studying the complex, international trend-setting French theory affiliated with the names of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes.

The ‘Apparat’ in Paris: CIA Agent and Head of the CCF Michael Josselson (center) in a Working Lunch with John Clinton Hunt and Melvin Lasky (right)

The image of American spies gathering in Parisian cafés to assiduously study and compare notes on the high priests of the French intelligentsia might shock those who presume this group of intellectuals to be luminaries whose otherworldly sophistication could never be caught in such a vulgar dragnet, or who assume them to be, on the contrary, charlatan peddlers of incomprehensible rhetoric with little or no impact on the real world. However, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with the CIA’s longstanding and ongoing investment in a global cultural war, including support for its most avant-garde forms, which has been well documented by researchers like Frances Stonor Saunders, Giles Scott-Smith, Hugh Wilford (and I have made my own contribution in Radical History & the Politics of Art).

Thomas W. Braden, the former supervisor of cultural activities at the CIA, explained the power of the Agency’s cultural assault in a frank insider’s account published in 1967: “I remember the enormous joy I got when the Boston Symphony Orchestra [which was supported by the CIA] won more acclaim for the U.S. in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have bought with a hundred speeches.” This was by no means a small or liminal operation. In fact, as Wilford has aptly argued, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which was headquartered in Paris and later discovered to be a CIA front organization during the cultural Cold War, was among the most important patrons in world history, supporting an incredible range of artistic and intellectual activities. It had offices in 35 countries, published dozens of prestige magazines, was involved in the book industry, organized high-profile international conferences and art exhibits, coordinated performances and concerts, and contributed ample funding to various cultural awards and fellowships, as well as to front organizations like the Farfield Foundation.

The intelligence agency understands culture and theory to be crucial weapons in the overall arsenal it deploys to perpetuate US interests around the world. The recently released research paper from 1985, entitled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals, examines—undoubtedly in order to manipulate—the French intelligentsia and its fundamental role in shaping the trends that generate political policy. Suggesting that there has been a relative ideological balance between the left and the right in the history of the French intellectual world, the report highlights the monopoly of the left in the immediate postwar era—to which, we know, the Agency was rabidly opposed—due to the Communists’ key role in resisting fascism and ultimately winning the war against it. Although the right had been massively discredited because of its direct contribution to the Nazi death camps, as well as its overall xenophobic, anti-egalitarian and fascist agenda (according to the CIA’s own description), the unnamed secret agents who drafted the study outline with palpable delight the return of the right since approximately the early 1970s.

More specifically, the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

While other tentacles of the worldwide spy organization were involved in overthrowing democratically elected leaders, providing intelligence and funding to fascist dictators, and supporting right-wing death squads, the Parisian central intelligentsia squadron was collecting data on how the theoretical world’s drift to the right directly benefitted US foreign policy. The left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar era had been openly critical of US imperialism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s media clout as an outspoken Marxist critic, and his notable role—as the founder of Libération—in blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives, was closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.

In contrast, the anti-Soviet and anti-Marxist atmosphere of the emerging neoliberal era diverted public scrutiny and provided excellent cover for the CIA’s dirty wars by making it “very difficult for anyone to mobilize significant opposition among intellectual elites to US policies in Central America, for example.” Greg Grandin, one of the leading historians of Latin America, perfectly summarized this situation in The Last Colonial Massacre: “Aside from making visibly disastrous and deadly interventions in Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, and El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s, the United States has lent quiet and steady financial, material, and moral support for murderous counterinsurgent terror states. […] But the enormity of Stalin’s crimes ensures that such sordid histories, no matter how compelling, thorough, or damning, do not disturb the foundation of a worldview committed to the exemplary role of the United States in defending what we now know as democracy.”

It is in this context that the masked mandarins commend and support the relentless critique that a new generation of anti-Marxist thinkers like Bernard-Henri Levy, André Glucksmann and Jean-François Revel unleashed on “the last clique of Communist savants” (composed, according to the anonymous agents, of Sartre, Barthes, Lacan and Louis Althusser). Given the leftwing leanings of these anti-Marxists in their youth, they provide the perfect model for constructing deceptive narratives that amalgamate purported personal political growth with the progressive march of time, as if both individual life and history were simply a matter of “growing up” and recognizing that profound egalitarian social transformation is a thing of the—personal and historical—past. This patronizing, omniscient defeatism not only serves to discredit new movements, particularly those driven by the youth, but it also mischaracterizes the relative successes of counter-revolutionary repression as the natural progress of history. 

Anti-Marxist French Philosopher Raymond Aron (left) and His Wife Suzanne on Vacation with Undercover CIA Operative Michael Josselson and Denis de Rougemont (right)

Even theoreticians who were not as opposed to Marxism as these intellectual reactionaries have made a significant contribution to an environment of disillusionment with transformative egalitarianism, detachment from social mobilization and “critical inquiry” devoid of radical politics. This is extremely important for understanding the CIA’s overall strategy in its broad and profound attempts to dismantle the cultural left in Europe and elsewhere. In recognizing it was unlikely that it could abolish it entirely, the world’s most powerful spy organization has sought to move leftist culture away from resolute anti-capitalist and transformative politics toward center-left reformist positions that are less overtly critical of US foreign and domestic policies. In fact, as Saunders has demonstrated in detail, the Agency went behind the back of the McCarthy-driven Congress in the postwar era in order to directly support and promote leftist projects that steered cultural producers and consumers away from the resolutely egalitarian left. In severing and discrediting the latter, it also aspired to fragment the left in general, leaving what remained of the center left with only minimal power and public support (as well as being potentially discredited due to its complicity with right-wing power politics, an issue that continues to plague contemporary institutionalized parties on the left).

It is in this light that we must understand the intelligence agency’s fondness for conversion narratives and its deep appreciation for “reformed Marxists,” a leitmotif that traverses the research paper on French theory. “Even more effective in undermining Marxism,” the moles write, “were those intellectuals who set out as true believers to apply Marxist theory in the social sciences but ended by rethinking and rejecting the entire tradition.” They cite in particular the profound contribution made by the Annales School of historiography and structuralism—particularly Claude Lévi-Strauss and Foucault—to the “critical demolition of Marxist influence in the social sciences.” Foucault, who is referred to as “France’s most profound and influential thinker,” is specifically applauded for his praise of the New Right intellectuals for reminding philosophers that “‘bloody’ consequences” have “flowed from the rationalist social theory of the 18th-century Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era.” Although it would be a mistake to collapse anyone’s politics or political effect into a single position or result, Foucault’s anti-revolutionary leftism and his perpetuation of the blackmail of the Gulag—i.e. the claim that expansive radical movements aiming at profound social and cultural transformation only resuscitate the most dangerous of traditions—are perfectly in line with the espionage agency’s overall strategies of psychological warfare.

The CIA’s reading of French theory should give us pause, then, to reconsider the radical chic veneer that has accompanied much of its Anglophone reception. According to a stagist conception of progressive history (which is usually blind to its implicit teleology), the work of figures like Foucault, Derrida and other cutting-edge French theorists is often intuitively affiliated with a form of profound and sophisticated critique that presumably far surpasses anything found in the socialist, Marxist or anarchist traditions. It is certainly true and merits emphasis that the Anglophone reception of French theory, as John McCumber has aptly pointed out, had important political implications as a pole of resistance to the false political neutrality, the safe technicalities of logic and language, or the direct ideological conformism operative in the McCarthy-supported traditions of Anglo-American philosophy. However, the theoretical practices of figures who turned their back on what Cornelius Castoriadis called the tradition of radical critique—meaning anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance—surely contributed to the ideological drift away from transformative politics. According to the spy agency itself, post-Marxist French theory directly contributed to the CIA’s cultural program of coaxing the left toward the right, while discrediting anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, thereby creating an intellectual environment in which their imperial projects could be pursued unhindered by serious critical scrutiny from the intelligentsia.

As we know from the research on the CIA’s program of psychological warfare, the organization has not only tracked and sought to coerce individuals, but it has always been keen on understanding and transforming institutions of cultural production and distribution. Indeed, its study on French theory points to the structural role universities, publishing houses and the media play in the formation and consolidation of a collective political ethos. In descriptions that, like the rest of the document, should invite us to think critically about the current academic situation in the Anglophone world and beyond, the authors of the report foreground the ways in which the precarization of academic labor contributes to the demolition of radical leftism. If strong leftists cannot secure the material means necessary to carry out our work, or if we are more or less subtly forced to conform in order to find employment, publish our writings or have an audience, then the structural conditions for a resolute leftist community are weakened. The vocationalization of higher education is another tool used for this end since it aims at transforming people into techno-scientific cogs in the capitalist apparatus rather than autonomous citizens with reliable tools for social critique. The theory mandarins of the CIA therefore praise the efforts on the part of the French government to “push students into business and technical courses.” They also point to the contributions made by major publishing houses like Grasset, the mass media and the vogue of American culture in pushing forward their post-socialist and anti-egalitarian platform.

What lessons might we draw from this report, particularly in the current political environment with its ongoing assault on the critical intelligentsia? First of all, it should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree. The Central Intelligence Agency, as its name ironically suggests, believes in the power of intelligence and theory, and we should take this very seriously. In falsely presuming that intellectual work has little or no traction in the “real world,” we not only misrepresent the practical implications of theoretical labor, but we also run the risk of dangerously turning a blind eye to the political projects for which we can easily become the unwitting cultural ambassadors. Although it is certainly the case that the French nation-state and cultural apparatus provide a much more significant public platform for intellectuals than is to be found in many other countries, the CIA’s preoccupation with mapping and manipulating theoretical and cultural production elsewhere should serve as a wake-up call to us all.

Second, the power brokers of the present have a vested interest in cultivating an intelligentsia whose critical acumen has been dulled or destroyed by fostering institutions founded on business and techno-science interests, equating left-wing politics with anti-scientificity, correlating science with a purported—but false—political neutrality, promoting media that saturate the airwaves with conformist prattle, sequestering strong leftists outside of major academic institutions and the media spotlight, and discrediting any call for radical egalitarian and ecological transformation. Ideally, they seek to nurture an intellectual culture that, if on the left, is neutralized, immobilized, listless and content with defeatist hand wringing, or with the passive criticism of the radically mobilized left. This is one of the reasons why we might want to consider intellectual opposition to radical leftism, which preponderates in the U.S. academy, as a dangerous political position: isn’t it directly complicit with the CIA’s imperialist agenda around the world?

Third, to counter this institutional assault on a culture of resolute leftism, it is imperative to resist the precarization and vocationalization of education. It is equally important to create public spheres of truly critical debate, providing a broader platform for those who recognize that another world is not only possible, but is necessary. We also need to band together in order to contribute to or further develop alternative media, different models of education, counter-institutions and radical collectives. It is vital to foster precisely what the covert cultural combatants want to destroy: a culture of radical leftism with a broad institutional framework of support, extensive public backing, prevalent media clout and expansive power of mobilization.

Finally, intellectuals of the world should unite in recognizing our power and seizing upon it in order to do everything that we can to develop systemic and radical critique that is as egalitarian and ecological as it is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. The positions that one defends in the classroom or publicly are important for setting the terms of debate and charting the field of political possibility. In direct opposition to the spy agency’s cultural strategy of fragment and polarize, by which it has sought to sever and isolate the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist left, while opposing it to reformist positions, we should federate and mobilize by recognizing the importance of working together—across the entire left, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has recently reminded usfor the cultivation of a truly critical intelligentsia. Rather than proclaiming or bemoaning the powerlessness of intellectuals, we should harness the ability to speak truth to power by working together and mobilizing our capacity to collectively create the institutions necessary for a world of cultural leftism. For it is only in such a world, and in the echo chambers of critical intelligence that it produces, that the truths spoken might actually be heard, and thereby change the very structures of power. 

Isaac Asimov Reviews ‘1984’

Originally published in The New York Times.

REVIEW OF 1984

By Isaac Asimov

I’ve been writing a four-part article for Field Newspaper Syndicate at the beginning of each year for several years now and in 1980, mindful of the approach of the year 1984, FNS asked me to write a thorough critique of George Orwell’s novel 1984.

I was reluctant. I remembered almost nothing of the book and said so – but Denison Demac, the lovely young woman who is my contact at FNS, simply sent me a copy of it and said, ‘Read it.’

So I read it and found myself absolutely astonished at what I read. I wondered how many people who talked about the novel so glibly had ever read it; or if they had, whether they remembered it at all.

I felt I would have to write the critique if only to set people straight. (I’m sorry; I love setting people straight.)

A. THE WRITING OF 1984

In 1949, a book entitled 1984 was published. It was written by Eric Arthur Blair under the pseudonym of George Orwell.

The book attempted to show what life would be like in a world of total evil, in which those controlling the government kept themselves in power by brute force, by distorting the truth, by continually rewriting history, by mesmerising the people generally.

This evil world was placed only thirty-five years in the future so that even men who were already in their early middle age at the time the book was published might live to see it if they lived out a normal lifetime.

I, for instance, was already a married man when the book appeared and yet here we are less than four years away from that apocalyptic year (for ‘1984’ has become a year that is associated with dread because of Orwell’s book), and I am very likely to live to see it.

In this chapter, I will discuss the book, but first: Who was Blair/Orwell and why was the book written?

Blair was born in 1903 into the status of a British gentleman. His father was in the Indian civil service and Blair himself lived the life of a British Imperial official. He went to Eton, served in Burma, and so on. However, he lacked the money to be an English gentleman to the full. Then, too, he didn’t want to spend his time at dull desk jobs; he wanted to be a writer. Thirdly, he felt guilty about his status in the upper class. So he did in the late 1920s what so many well-to-do American young people in the 1960s did. In short, he became what we would have called a ‘hippie’ at a later time. He lived under slum conditions in London and Paris, consorted with and identified with slum dwellers and vagrants, managed to ease his conscience and, at the same time, to gather material for his earliest books.

He also turned left wing and became a socialist, fighting with the loyalists in Spain in the 1930s. There he found himself caught up in the sectarian struggles between the various left-wing factions, and since he believed in a gentlemanly English form of socialism, he was inevitably on the losing side. Opposed to him were passionate Spanish anarchists, syndicalists, and communists, who bitterly resented the fact that the necessities of fighting the Franco fascists got in the way of their fighting each other.

The communists, who were the best organised, won out and Orwell had to leave Spain, for he was convinced that if he did not, he would be killed From then on, to the end of his life, he carried on a private literary war with the communists, determined to win in words the battle he had lost in action.

During World War II, in which he was rejected for military service, he was associated with the left wing of the British Labour party, but didn’t much sympathise with their views, for even their reckless version of socialism seemed too well organised for him. He wasn’t much affected, apparently, by the Nazi brand of totalitarianism, for there was no room within him except for his private war with Stalinist communism. Consequently, when Great Britain was fighting for its life against Nazism, and the Soviet Union fought as an ally in the struggle and contributed rather more than its share in lives lost and in resolute courage, Orwell wrote Animal Farm which was a satire of the Russian Revolution and what followed, picturing it in terms of a revolt of barnyard animals against human masters.

He completed Animal Farm in 1944 and had trouble finding a publisher since it wasn’t a particularly good time for upsetting the Soviets. As soon as the war came to an end, however, the Soviet Union was fair game and Animal Farm was published. It was greeted with much acclaim and Orwell became sufficiently prosperous to retire and devote himself to his masterpiece, 1984.

That book described society as a vast world-wide extension of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s, pictured with the venom of a rival left-wing sectarian. Other forms of totalitarianism play a small role. There are one or two mentions of the Nazis and of the Inquisition. At the very start, there is a reference or two to Jews, almost as though they were going to prove the objects of persecution, but that vanishes almost at once, as though Orwell didn’t want readers to mistake the villains for Nazis. The picture is of Stalinism, and Stalinism only.

By the time the book came out in 1949, the Cold War was at its height. The book therefore proved popular. It was almost a matter of patriotism in the West to buy it and talk about it, and perhaps even to read parts of it, although it is my opinion that more people bought it and talked about it than read it, for it is a dreadfully dull book – didactic, repetitious, and all but motionless.

It was most popular at first with people who leaned towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, for it was clearly an anti-Soviet polemic, and the picture of life it projected in the London of 1984 was very much as conservatives imagined life in the Moscow of 1949 to be.

During the McCarthy era in the United States, 1984 became increasingly popular with those who leaned towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, for it seemed to them that the United States of the early 1950s was beginning to move in the direction of thought-control and that all the viciousness Orwell had depicted was on its way towards us.

Thus, in an afterword to an edition published in paperback by New American Library in 1961, the liberal psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm concluded as follows:

‘Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.’

Even if Stalinism and McCarthyism are disregarded, however, more and more Americans were becoming aware of just how ‘big’ the government was getting; how high taxes were; how increasingly rules and regulations permeated business and even ordinary life; how information concerning every facet of private life was entering the files not only of government bureaux but of private credit systems.

1984, therefore, came to stand not for Stalinism, or even for dictatorship in general – but merely for government. Even governmental paternalism seemed ‘1984ish’ and the catch phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’ came to mean everything that was too big for the individual to control. It was not only big government and big business that was a symptom of 1984 but big science, big labour, big anything.

In fact, so thoroughly has 1984-ophobia penetrated the consciousness of many who have not read the book and have no notion of what it contains, that one wonders what will happen to us after 31 December 1984. When New Year’s Day of 1985 arrives and the United States is still in existence and facing very much the problems it faces today, how will we express our fears of whatever aspect of life fills us with apprehension? What new date can we invent to take the place of 1984?

Orwell did not live to see his book become the success it did. He did not witness the way in which he made 1984 into a year that would haunt a whole generation of Americans. Orwell died of tuberculosis in a London hospital in January 1950, just a few months after the book was published, at the age of forty-six. His awareness of imminent death may have added to the bitterness of the book.

B. THE SCIENCE FICTION OF 1984

Many people think of 1984 as a science fiction novel, but almost the only item about 1984 that would lead one to suppose this is the fact that it is purportedly laid in the future. Not so! Orwell had no feel for the future, and the displacement of the story is much more geographical than temporal.

The London in which the story is placed is not so much moved thirty-five years forward in time, from 1949 to 1984, as it is moved a thousand miles east in space to Moscow. Orwell imagines Great Britain to have gone through a revolution similar to the Russian Revolution and to have gone through all the stages that Soviet development did. He can think of almost no variations on the theme. The Soviets had a series of purges in the 1930s, so the Ingsoc (English Socialism) had a series of purges in the 1950s. The Soviets converted one of their revolutionaries, Leon Trotsky, into a villain, leaving his opponent, Joseph Stalin, as a hero. The Ingsoc, therefore, convert one of their revolutionaries, Emmanuel Goldstein, into a villain, leaving his opponent, with a moustache like Stalin, as a hero.

There is no ability to make minor changes, even. Goldstein, like Trotsky, has ‘a lean Jewish face, with a great fuzzy aureole of white hair and a small goatee beard’. Orwell apparently does not want to confuse the issue by giving Stalin a different name so he calls him merely ‘Big Brother’.

At the very beginning of the story, it is made clear that television (which was coming into existence at the time the book was written) served as a continuous means of indoctrination of the people, for sets cannot be turned off. (And, apparently, in a deteriorating London in which nothing works, these sets never fail.)

The great Orwellian contribution to future technology is that the television set is two-way, and that the people who are forced to hear and see the television screen can themselves be heard and seen at all times and are under constant supervision even while sleeping or in the bathroom. Hence, the meaning of the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’.

This is an extraordinarily inefficient system of keeping everyone under control. To have a person being watched at all times means that some other person must be doing the watching at all times (at least in the Orwellian society) and must be doing so very narrowly, for there is a great development of the art of interpreting gesture and facial expression. One person cannot watch more than one person in full concentration, and can only do so for a comparatively short time before attention begins to wander. I should guess, in short, that there may have to be five watchers for every person watched. And then, of course, the watchers must themselves be watched since no one in the Orwellian world is suspicion-free. Consequently, the system of oppression by two-way television simply will not work.

Orwell himself realised this by limiting its workings to the Party members. The ‘proles’ (proletariat), for whom Orwell cannot hide his British upper-class contempt, are left largely to themselves as subhuman. (At one point in the book, he says that any prole that shows ability is killed – a leaf taken out of the Spartan treatment of their helots twenty-five hundred years ago.)

Furthermore, he has a system of volunteer spies in which children report on their parents, and neighbours on each other. This cannot possibly work well since eventually everyone reports everyone else and it all has to be abandoned.

Orwell was unable to conceive of computers or robots, or he would have placed everyone under non-human surveillance. Our own computers to some extent do this in the IRS, in credit files, and so on, but that does not take us towards 1984, except in fevered imaginations. Computers and tyranny do not necessarily go hand in hand. Tyrannies have worked very well without computers (consider the Nazis) and the most computerised nations in today’s world are also the least tyrannical.

Orwell lacks the capacity to see (or invent) small changes. His hero finds it difficult in his world of 1984 to get shoelaces or razor blades. So would I in the real world of the 1980s, for so many people use slip-on shoes and electric razors.

Then, too, Orwell had the technophobic fixation that every technological advance is a slide downhill. Thus, when his hero writes, he ‘fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. He does so ‘because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil’.

Presumably, the ‘ink-pencil’ is the ball-point pen that was coming into use at the time that 1984 was being written. This means that Orwell describes something as being written’ with a real nib but being ‘scratched’ with a ball-point. This is, however, precisely the reverse of the truth. If you are old enough to remember steel pens, you will remember that they scratched fearsomely, and you know ball-points don’t. This is not science fiction, but a distorted nostalgia for a past that never was. I am surprised that Orwell stopped with the steel pen and that he didn’t have Winston writing with a neat goose quill.

Nor was Orwell particularly prescient in the strictly social aspects of the future he was presenting, with the result that the Orwellian world of 1984 is incredibly old-fashioned when compared with the real world of the 1980s.

Orwell imagines no new vices, for instance. His characters are all gin hounds and tobacco addicts, and part of the horror of his picture of 1984 is his eloquent description of the low quality of the gin and tobacco. He foresees no new drugs, no marijuana, no synthetic hallucinogens. No one expects an s.f. writer to be precise and exact in his forecasts, but surely one would expect him to invent some differences.

In his despair (or anger), Orwell forgets the virtues human beings have. All his characters are, in one way or another, weak or sadistic, or sleazy, or stupid, or repellent. This may be how most people are, or how Orwell wants to indicate they will all be under tyranny, but it seems to me that under even the worst tyrannies, so far, there have been brave men and women who have withstood the tyrants to the death and whose personal histories are luminous flames in the surrounding darkness. If only because there is no hint of this in 1984, it does not resemble the real world of the 1980s.

Nor did he foresee any difference in the role of women or any weakening of the feminine stereotype of 1949. There are only two female characters of importance. One is a strong, brainless ‘prole’ woman who is an endless washerwoman, endlessly singing a popular song with words of the type familiar in the 1930s and 1940s (at which Orwell shudders fastidiously as ‘trashy’, in blissful non-anticipation of hard rock).

The other is the heroine, Julia, who is sexually promiscuous (but is at least driven to courage by her interest in sex) and is otherwise brainless. When the hero, Winston, reads to her the book within a book that explains the nature of the Orwellian world, she responds by falling asleep – but then since the treatise Winston reads is stupefyingly soporific, this may be an indication of Julia’s good sense rather than the reverse. In short, if 1984 must be considered science fiction, then it is very bad science fiction.

C. THE GOVERNMENT OF 1984

Orwell’s 1984 is a picture of all-powerful government, and it has helped make the notion of ‘big government’ a very frightening one.

We have to remember, though, that the world of the late 1940s, during which Orwell was writing his book, was one in which there had been, and still were, big governments with true tyrants – individuals whose every wish, however unjust, cruel or vicious, was law. What’s more, it seemed as though such tyrants were irremovable except by the chance of outside force. Benito Mussolini of Italy, after twenty-one years of absolute rule, was overthrown, but that was only because his country was suffering defeat in war.

Adolf Hitler of Germany, a far stronger and more brutal tyrant, ruled with a steel hand for twelve years, yet even defeat did not, in itself, bring about his overthrow. Though the area over which he ruled shrank and shrank and shrank, and even though overwhelming armies of his adversaries closed in from the east and west, he remained absolute tyrant over whatever area he controlled – even when it was only over the bunker in which he committed suicide. Until he removed himself, no one dared remove him. (There were plots against him, to be sure, but they never worked, sometimes through quirks of fate that seemed explainable only by supposing that someone down there liked him.)

Orwell, however, had no time for either Mussolini or Hitler. His enemy was Stalin, and at the time that 1984 was published, Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union in a ribbreaking bear hug for twenty-five years, had survived a terrible war in which his nation suffered enormous losses and yet was now stronger than ever. To Orwell, it must have seemed that neither time nor fortune could budge Stalin, but that he would live on forever with ever increasing strength. – And that was how Orwell pictured Big Brother.

Of course, that was not the way it really was. Orwell didn’t live long enough to see it but Stalin died only three years after 1984 was published, and it was not long after that that his regime was denounced as a tyranny by – guess who – the Soviet leadership.

The Soviet Union is still the Soviet Union, but it is not Stalinist, and the enemies of the state are no longer liquidated (Orwell uses ‘vaporised’ instead, such small changes being all he can manage) with quite such abandon.

Again, Mao Tse-tung died in China, and while he himself has not been openly denounced, his close associates, as ‘the Gang of Four’, were promptly demoted from Divinity, and while China is still China, it is not Maoist any longer.

Franco of Spain died in his bed and while, to his very last breath, he remained the unquestioned leader he had been for nearly forty years, immediately after that last breath, Fascism abruptly dwindled in Spain, as it had in Portugal after Salazar’s death.

In short, Big Brothers do die, or at least they have so far, and when they die, the government changes, always for the milder.

This is not to say that new tyrants may not make themselves felt, but they will die, too. At least in the real 1980s we have every confidence they will and the undying Big Brother is not yet a real threat.

If anything, in fact, governments of the 1980s seem dangerously weak. The advance of technology has put powerful weapons – explosives, machine guns, fast cars into the hands of urban terrorists who can and do kidnap, hijack, gun down, and take hostages with impunity while governments stand by more or less helplessly.

In addition to the immortality of Big Brother, Orwell presents two other ways of maintaining an eternal tyranny.

First -,present someone or something to hate. In the Orwellian world it was Emmanuel Goldstein for whom hate was built up and orchestrated in a robotized mass function.

This is nothing new, of course. Every nation in the world has used various neighbours for the purpose of hate. This sort of thing is so easily handled and comes as such second nature to humanity that one wonders why there have to be the organised hate drives in the Orwellian world.

It needs scarcely any clever psychological mass movements to make Arabs hate Israelis and Greeks hate Turks and Catholic Irish hate Protestant Irish – and vice versa in each case. To be sure, the Nazis organised mass meetings of delirium that every participant seemed to enjoy, but it had no permanent effect. Once the war moved on to German soil, the Germans surrendered as meekly as though they had never Sieg-Heiled in their lives.

Second – rewrite history. Almost every one of the few individuals we meet in 1984 has, as his job, the rapid rewriting of the past, the readjustment of statistics, the overhauling of newspapers – as though anyone is going to take the trouble to pay attention to the past anyway.

This Orwellian preoccupation with the minutiae of ‘historical proof’ is typical of the political sectarian who is always quoting what has been said and done in the past to prove a point to someone on the other side who is always quoting something to the opposite effect that has been said and done.

As any politician knows, no evidence of any kind is ever required. It is only necessary to make a statement – any statement – forcefully enough to have an audience believe it. No one will check the lie against the facts, and, if they do, they will disbelieve the facts. Do you think the German people in 1939 pretended that the Poles had attacked them and started World War II? No! Since they were told that was so, they believed it as seriously as you and I believe that they attacked the Poles.

To be sure, the Soviets put out new editions of their Encyclopaedia in which politicians rating a long biography in earlier editions are suddenly omitted entirely, and this is no doubt the germ of the Orwellian notion, but the chances of carrying it as far as is described in 1984 seem to me to be nil – not because it is beyond human wickedness, but because it is totally unnecessary.

Orwell makes much of ‘Newspeak’ as an organ of repression – the conversion of the English language into so limited and abbreviated an instrument that the very vocabulary of dissent vanishes. Partly he got the notion from the undoubted habit of abbreviation. He gives examples of ‘Communist International’ becoming ‘Comintern’ and ‘Geheime Staatspolizei’ becoming ‘Gestapo’, but that is not a modern totalitarian invention. ‘Vulgus mobile’ became ‘mob’; ‘taxi cabriolet’ became ‘cab’; ‘quasi-stellar radio source’ became ‘quasar’; ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’ became ‘laser’ and so on. There is no sign that such compressions of the language have ever weakened it as a mode of expression.

As a matter of fact, political obfuscation has tended to use many words rather than few, long words rather than short, to extend rather than to reduce. Every leader of inadequate education or limited intelligence hides behind exuberant inebriation of loquacity.

Thus, when Winston Churchill suggested the development of ‘Basic English’ as an international language (something which undoubtedly also contributed to ‘Newspeak’), the suggestion was stillborn. We are therefore in no way approaching Newspeak in its condensed form, though we have always had Newspeak in its extended form and always will have.

We also have a group of young people among us who say things like ‘Right on, man, you know. It’s like he’s got it all together, you know, man. I mean, like you know -‘ and so on for five minutes when the word that the young people are groping for is ‘Huh?’

That, however, is not Newspeak, and it has always been with us, too. It is something which in Oldspeak is called ‘inarticulacy’ and it is not what Orwell had in mind.

D. THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION OF 1984

Although Orwell seemed, by and large, to be helplessly stuck in the world of 1949, in one respect at least he showed himself to be remarkably prescient, and that was in foreseeing the tripartite split of the world of the 1980s.

The international world of 1984 is a world of three superpowers: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia – and that fits in, very roughly, with the three actual superpowers of the 1980s: the United States, the Soviet Union, and China.

Oceania is a combination of the United States and the British Empire. Orwell, who was an old Imperial civil servant, did not seem to notice that the British Empire was in its last throes in the late 1940s and was about to dissolve. He seems to suppose, in fact, that the British Empire is the dominant member of the British-American combination.

At least, the entire action takes place in London and phrases such as ‘the United States’ and ‘Americans’ are rarely, if ever, mentioned. But then, this is very much in the fashion of the British spy novel in which, ever since World War II, Great Britain (currently about the eighteenth strongest military and economic power in the world) is set up as the great adversary of the Soviet Union, or of China, or of some invented international conspiracy, with the United States either never mentioned or reduced to the small courtesy appearance of an occasional CIA agent.

Eurasia is, of course, the Soviet Union, which Orwell assumes will have absorbed the whole European continent. Eurasia, therefore, includes all of Europe, plus Siberia, and its population is 95 per cent European by any standard.

Nevertheless, Orwell describes the Eurasians as ‘solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces’. Since Orwell still lives in a time when ‘European’ and ‘Asiatic’ are equivalent to ‘ ‘hero’ and ‘villain’, it is impossible to inveigh against the Soviet Union with the proper emotion if it is not thought of as ‘Asiatic’. This comes under the heading of what Orwellian Newspeak calls ‘double-think’, something that Orwell, like any human being, is good at.

It may be, of course, that Orwell is thinking not of Eurasia, or the Soviet Union, but of his great bête noire, Stalin. Stalin is a Georgian, and Georgia, lying south of the Caucasus mountains, is, by strict geographic considerations, part of Asia.

Eastasia is, of course, China and various dependent nations. Here is prescience. At the time Orwell was writing 1984, the Chinese communists had not yet won control of the country and many (in the United States, in particular) were doing their best to see that the anti-Communist, Chiang Kai-shek, retained control. Once the communists won, it became part of the accepted credo of the West that the Chinese would be under thorough Soviet control and that China and the Soviet Union would form a monolithic communist power.

Orwell not only foresaw the communist victory (he saw that victory everywhere, in fact) but also foresaw that Russia and China would not form a monolithic bloc but would be deadly enemies.

There, his own experience as a Leftist sectarian may have helped him. He had no Rightist superstitions concerning Leftists as unified and indistinguishable villains. He knew they would fight each other as fiercely over the most trifling points of doctrine as would the most pious of Christians.

He also foresaw a permanent state of war among the three; a condition of permanent stalemate with the alliances ever-shifting, but always two against the strongest. This was the old-fashioned ‘balance of power’ system which was used in ancient Greece, in medieval Italy, and in early modern Europe. Orwell’s mistake lay in thinking there had to be actual war to keep the merry-go-round of the balance of power in being. In fact, in one of the more laughable parts of the book, he goes on and on concerning the necessity of permanent war as a means of consuming the world’s production of resources and thus keeping the social stratification of upper, middle, and lower classes in being. (This sounds like a very Leftist explanation of war as the result of a conspiracy worked out with great difficulty.)

In actual fact, the decades since 1945 have been remarkably war-free as compared with the decades before it. There have been local wars in profusion, but no general war. But then, war is not required as a desperate device to consume the world’s resources. That can be done by such other devices as endless increase in population and in energy use, neither of which Orwell considers.

Orwell did not foresee any of the significant economic changes that have taken place since World War II. He did not foresee the role of oil or its declining availability or its increasing price, or the escalating power of those nations who control it. I don’t recall his mentioning the word ‘oil’.

But perhaps it is close enough to mark Orwellian prescience here, if we substitute ‘cold war’ for ‘war’. There has been, in fact, a more or less continual ‘cold war’ that has served to keep employment high and solve some short-term economic problems (at the cost of creating long-term greater ones). And this cold war is enough to deplete resources.

Furthermore, the alliances shifted as Orwell foresaw and very nearly as suddenly. When the United States seemed all-powerful, the Soviet Union and China were both vociferously anti-American and in a kind of alliance. As American power decreased, the Soviet Union and China fell apart and, for a while, each of the three powers inveighed against the other two equally. Then, when the Soviet Union came to seem particularly powerful, a kind of alliance sprang up between the United States and China, as they co-operated in vilifying the Soviet Union, and spoke softly of each other.

In 1984 every shift of alliance involved an orgy of history rewriting. In real life, no such folly is necessary. The public swings from side to side easily, accepting the change in circumstance with no concern for the past at all. For instance, the Japanese, by the 1950s, had changed from unspeakable villains to friends, while the Chinese moved in the opposite direction with no one bothering to wipe out Pearl Harbour. No one cared, for goodness’ sake.

Orwell has his three great powers voluntarily forgo the use of nuclear bombs, and to be sure such bombs have not been used in war since 1945. That, however, may be because the only powers with large nuclear arsenals, the United States and the Soviet Union, have avoided war with each other. Were there actual war, it is extremely doubtful that one side or the other would not finally feel it necessary to push the button. In that respect, Orwell perhaps falls short of reality.

London does, however, occasionally suffer a missile strike, which sounds very much like a V-1 or V-2 weapon of 1944, and the city is in a 1945-type shambles. Orwell cannot make 1984 very different from 1944 in this respect. Orwell, in fact, makes it clear that by 1984, the universal communism of the three superpowers has choked science and reduced it to uselessness except in those areas where it is needed for war. There is no question but that the nations are more eager to invest in science where war applications are in clear view but, alas, there is no way of separating war from peace where applications are in question.

Science is a unit, and everything in it could conceivably be related to war and destruction. Science has therefore not been choked off but continues not only in the United States and Western Europe and Japan, but also in the Soviet Union and in China. The advances of science are too numerous to attempt to list, but think of lasers and computers as ‘war weapons’ with infinite peaceful applications.

To summarise, then: George Orwell in 1984 was, in my opinion, engaging in a private feud with Stalinism, rather that attempting to forecast the future. He did not have the science fictional knack of foreseeing a plausible future and, in actual fact, in almost all cases, the world of 1984 bears no relation to the real world of the 1980s.

The world may go communist, if not by 1984, then by some not very much later date; or it may see civilisation destroyed. If this happens, however, it will happen in a fashion quite different from that depicted in 1984 and if we try to prevent either eventuality by imagining that 1984 is accurate, then we will be defending ourselves against assaults from the wrong direction and we will lose.

Source

Video

Late Night Marxism: Historical Materialism: Modes of Production (Part One)

J.V. Stalin on Writers

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“As comrade Olesha aptly expressed himself, writers are engineers of human souls. The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks, and therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.”

 — J.V. Stalin, “Speech at home of Maxim Gorky,” 26 October 1932.

Why Does the Pseudo-Left Hate Grover Furr?

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by Espresso Stalinist

Grover Furr is an American professor and author. He has taught at Montclair State University in New Jersey for over four decades, and has written essays, articles and books on Soviet history in both Russian and English. Though his body of work covers a wide variety of topics, his most famous writings study the period of Soviet history under Joseph Stalin, particularly regarding controversies around the Moscow Trials, the Katyn “massacre,” the events in Poland in 1939, the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Ukrainian famine and Khrushchev’s “secret speech.” Furr’s research on the history of communism, Soviet history and the historical falsifications told against socialism is some of the most remarkable, ground-breaking and enlightening in the world. He uses a very precise and admirable document-based approach to research that is exceedingly valuable and hard to find elsewhere.

This approach, unsurprisingly, has won him more than a fair share of enemies and critics, not only on the right but the left as well. Those on the left who attack Grover Furr are the most peculiar of his critics. Professor Furr is someone that sets about examining historical allegations used to attack socialism, and in his published books and articles finds and publishes objective documentary and archival proof that it is not true, or at least deceptive. In other words, he spends a great deal of time and effort countering bourgeois propaganda about Marxism-Leninism. What has been their response? To attack him. One would think someone who speaks Russian, has translated Russian documents and has access to the archives would be of interest to those looking to learn about the history of socialism. One would further think, that a sincere person who considers themselves a socialist or a Marxist would thank Grover Furr for finding proof that a large portion of what we are told about Stalin and the U.S.S.R. are lies.

We live in an age where most Marxist or progressive academics who dare to challenge the status quo are fired, sidelined, driven out of academia or simply deemed irrelevant. Only a fool would pretend that academic repression isn’t a reality. Yet, when it comes to the brave, bold and challenging works Furr has published, critics universally dismiss them without reviewing the evidence he presents. In discussions, I have never heard them say, “No Professor Furr, I disagree with your thesis statement, and wish to make a counter-thesis. Here are my facts, arguments and sources backing it up.” Instead, what I hear over and over is his work dismissed as “absurd,” “insane,” or Furr himself labeled as a “crackpot” or “Stalinist.” There is almost always an attempt to link his methods of research to anti-Semites and fascists, or even outright call him a “Holocaust denier,” implicitly comparing Soviet history with Nazi Germany.

Why do his critics almost universally behave in this manner? The answer is simply: because they can’t refute anything he says.

For all Furr’s research has contributed to our understanding of Soviet history and to refuting the lies told about life in socialist countries, his critics and opponents have not offered any meaningful refutation of his works or even engaged with the evidence contained therein. When pressed to sum up his theses, the evidence he presents to support them, and then to offer counter-evidence and refutations of their own, silence fills the space. Very few, if any of his critics are capable of defining what specific points of his works they disagree with or can prove false. Often they assert things that are already addressed in the article in question. The opponents of Furr’s research, whatever their ideological differences may be, all share one common thread that over time is rendered impossible to miss. For all their ranting and raving, not a single one directly challenges him on the sources or attempts to refute his argument. There is a concrete reason for this – opposition to Furr’s research comes from knee-jerk anti-communism.

The pseudo-left’s endless venom towards Furr’s work is entirely (no, not partially, or even mostly, but from what I have seen, entirely) devoid of counter-criticism, counter-evidence, contrasting research or engagement in any way, shape or form with Furr’s work. At the present time, there are no scholarly refutations of Grover Furr’s work. Hostile reviews, on the other hand, are plentiful. Nor is there any lack of critics who chant “give us more evidence,” demanding a larger amount of evidence to their satisfaction – which of course, is a level of evidence that will never exist, no matter how much of it there is. Another consistent pattern with his critics is that they assume that an author must be able to prove the meaning of their research to the satisfaction of a hostile or skeptical critic in order to be considered valid. If the author fails to accomplish this task, it proves that he or she doesn’t understand what it means, and furthermore their failure to do so is definitive proof that the entirety of the research is consequently meaningless.

The debate on Grover Furr is always about form – the person, his writing style, his alleged motives, his allege dishonesty or lack of qualifications, and never about content – the evidence presented, what it shows, and whether it’s true or not. The infantile pseudo-left responds to science with provocation, facts with hostility, reason with insults, ideological questions with personal attacks, and the deep questions posed by Furr’s work with shallow criticisms. This is not to say that anyone who has criticisms of Furr’s work is automatically opposed to socialism. Far from it – criticism is an essential part of being a Marxist-Leninist. But by and large the criticisms of Grover Furr are not made from a principled standpoint.

“No one takes Grover Furr seriously” is the refrain. Yet, John Arch Getty, Robert Thurston, Lars Lih and many others have praised Furr’s work while disagreeing with his politics. One does not have to completely share Furr’s worldview to find a great deal of value in his essays, articles and books. In fact, any serious researcher, Marxist or not, can learn a great deal from the evidence he gathers to back up his viewpoints, evidence that is almost never studiously read or studied by those who violently denounce it. If the idea that Furr is not a serious academic is a legitimate position to take, then there should be criticisms of his scholarship. Perhaps not surprisingly, I haven’t heard a single argument as to why Grover Furr is an unacceptable source of information other than his opinions aren’t popular. If his arguments themselves cannot be addressed, then his critics have no right to reject the citing of his work.

Much is made of Furr’s “academic credentials,” or alleged lack thereof, to write about the subjects he chooses. He is an English professor they say, and therefore cannot be considered an authority on history. These noble knights dedicated to the defense of “credible” capitalist academia you see, must speak out against Furr. Yet, these same people have no problem with the works of Noam Chomsky, a linguist who writes an endless parade of books on a wide variety of subjects outside of his field, such as criticizing U.S. foreign policy, economy, science, immigration and the Cold War. Anyone who is familiar with Chomsky’s work knows his views are fairly traditional anarchism combined with Enlightenment-era classical liberalism. They are not friendly to socialism, and certainly no threat to anyone in the ruling class. Speaking out against imperialism in of itself is not a particularly radical act, especially when you’re not criticizing it from a Marxist perspective. Many far-rightists and libertarians speak out against U.S. foreign policy as well. Why the double standard? What is the difference between Furr and Chomsky? Quite simple, really. Chomsky is the poster boy of left anti-communism, of a “safe” and defanged leftism deprived of anything not acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, Furr’s research attempts to refute popular anti-communist propaganda instead of accepting it. The pseudo-left would rather back the petty-bourgeois cause than the proletarian one, because they are “radicals” stuck in that method of thinking.

It is is absolutely inarguable that the modern view of the history of socialism has been shaped by those who despise it, and yet phony leftists have no trouble upholding the most vile smears against Soviet, Eastern European and Chinese history. In an atmosphere where the highly dubious works of Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes are upheld as a dogma and treated as material to be seriously engaged with or even refuted, Furr’s work is singled out by both reactionaries and the pseudo-left for outright dismissal and slander.

When denial is not enough, general charges are invented, such as the allegation his presentations of history are “conspiracy theories.” This has also been used to describe the works of other Marxist-Leninist scholars, such as William Bland. I stress again that until there are refutations, one cannot accept these charges. After all, with all the history of capitalist plots we’ve learned, can one seriously accept this level of argumentation? Are the facts true, or not? Blanket cries of “Stalinist” directed against Furr mean nothing. If critics have counter-evidence, then let them step forward and present it. This should not be an unreasonable demand for a Marxist – or for anyone, really.

When Furr speaks of opposition conspiracies within the Soviet Union, or of holes and outright falsifications in the official story of Katyn, these are treated with the utmost skepticism. The idea that the defendants of the Moscow Trials may have actually been involved in terrorist conspiracies to overthrow the Soviet government and assassinate officials is seen as nonsense. Yet, when we are presented with stories of a heinous conspiracy involving J.V. Stalin and a substantial number of other high officials to themselves assassinate Zinoviev, Bukharin and a number of others through judicial means, then this “conspiracy theory” is adopted as the default correct position. It follows that it is easier to go along with the dominant narrative – that is, that of the bourgeoisie – regarding the history of socialism than it is to objectively challenge these ideas.

With the fake left, the formula could not be more simple: U.S. Cold War propaganda is upheld, pro-communist scholarly research is not. Every charge against the socialist countries is true; every defense of socialism is akin to Holocaust denial. Those who would agree, at least in words, that the history of the Soviet Union is falsified by capitalist scholars and reactionaries, and that socialist leaders are routinely subjected to outright slander are declared “insane,” their research or conclusions “absurd,” and derided as “crackpots” or “Stalinists.” The critics do not review the evidence or engage with the thesis; they merely dismiss it. They do not present counter-evidence; they merely assert it. Furr’s fake “left” opponents claim that Furr is “not credible scholarship” only because they don’t agree with it. Furr is only a “crackpot” because they don’t like what he has to say. In their view, scholarly research that counters the bourgeois propaganda narrative of history should be cast aside, silenced, devalued, delegitimized, hidden from the public view and ultimately, destroyed.

It seems to me the “left” needs to look in a mirror and stare itself straight in the eye, and ask: what have we come to, if we cannot refute these works? What exactly does it say, when the entire pseudo-left cannot refute someone who is supposedly “a crackpot with no academic credentials?” What does it say, when they cannot even define the actual content of his work when asked, yet they have already declared it false on the whole? What does it say, when they have no evidence to counter Furr’s claims, but rely on attacking Grover Furr the person?

Any allegations that his works are “below criticism” are disingenuous. If they are worthy of such hostility, then they are worthy of honest criticism. If only all of us checked their facts and cited their sources for all to see like Furr does, rather than rest on our own preconceived notions and prejudices, perhaps the American left wouldn’t be in such a precarious position these days.

The pseudo-left’s hatred has nothing to do with honesty. This is because of anti-communism, not political disagreement, not ideological difference, not a problem with Furr’s research or his conclusions, not an issue with his methods, or legitimate criticism of his evidence. It is a liberal and reactionary view that anything anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin must be true, while anything that challenges that view must be attacked, smeared, demonized, ridiculed and silenced. When evidence is not engaged with or dismissed, and the person themselves is slandered, it is not principled disagreement, it is not ideological difference – it is hate and prejudice.

The question stands: why does the pseudo left hate Grover Furr? The answer becomes plain: they hate Grover Furr precisely because his works challenge the hegemony of the Trotsky-Khrushchev-Gorbachev-Cold War anti-communist anti-Stalin paradigm, the dominant paradigm of the bourgeoisie. In other words, they hate Grover Furr because he is a good communist in an age filled with fake ones. They hate Grover Furr because he is an honest researcher in an age filled to the brim with propaganda. They hate Grover Furr because he has evidence for the conclusions he draws and presents it openly, rather than relying on emotionalism. They hate Grover Furr because he challenges the bourgeois anti-communist understanding of Soviet history. These days pseudo-leftists are not just dishonest or liberal; they are avowed anti-communists.

Video: Stalin’s Last Speech, 1952 [Subtitled]

Grover Furr: The Fallacies of Afrocentrism

EGYPT - JANUARY 01:  The mask of King Tutankhamun displayed in the Cairo Museum, Egypt.  (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

EGYPT – JANUARY 01: The mask of King Tutankhamun displayed in the Cairo Museum, Egypt. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

A few days ago I posted an article I wrote back in ’91 when the college’s black student org. invited Leonard Jeffries to come to speak. In it I ran through, though very briefly (for space), some of the fallacies of Afrocentrism. Here is a little more about them, in no special order.

  1. Afrocentrism seriously distorts Egyptian history. Egyptians were not “black” (Negroid) on the whole, though a few dynasties of rulers were. But Egyptians were also not racists, it seems, and people of different colors intermarried. We could do well to follow their lead in this!There is no evidence that Nefertiti or Cleopatra were ‘black’, for example. Nefertiti was not “white” (i.e. European) either (Cleopatra was either 3/4 Greek or, perhaps, entirely so, not Egyptian at all).
  2. Greeks did not “steal” their culture from Egypt. In the ancient Mediterranean world, cultural influences moved around a lot.
  3. The Egyptian rulers and their acolytes (like all the “-hoteps”, Imhotep, Ptahhotep, et al.) were an oppressive and expoitative aristocracy. Cheikh Anta Diop, whom Afrocentrists admire but, it seems, seldom read, has a very interesting review of Jacques Pirenne’s History of Ancient Egypt in one of his books. Diop comments favorably about Pirenne’s description of revolutions against the Egyptian rulers by lower-class Egyptians — something one would expect in an exploitative society. But the Afrocentrists who so admire Diop never mention this aspect of Ancient Egypt! In short, what they admire is the aristocratic, exploitative aspect of it.
  4. “African culture” is not a unity: there are many, many cultures in Africa. Ancient Egyptians are not the ancestors, either culturally or genetically, of the peoples of West Africa or of the American black population.
  5. The whole “ice man-sun man” thesis of Francis Welsing is racist crap, without a shred of evidence to support it. Welsing seldom publishes her ‘research’; same with Jeffries. I know: I’ve tried to get it; with lots of effort, I’ve gotten a very little bit. The infamous “Melanin” Conferences at which these ideas are promoted are virtually secret, their ‘proceedings’, if any, not available to anyone.
  6. The premises of Afrocentrism are false and racist against blacks, among others.
  • it is false and racist that anyone has any business taking “pride” in the “achievements” of one’s distant ancestors, since intelligence, creativity, etc., are not inherited, and furthermore no one can take any credit for anything they have not achieved themselves. This is the case even if modern blacks were the descendants of ancient Egyptians, which they are not. Besides, if one takes credit for the “achievements” of one’s distant ancestors, why not also assume the blame for the atrocities committed by the same ancestors?
  • it is false and racist to say that “blackness”, “melanin” (or “whiteness”, etc.) confers intelligence, or any characteristics at all. If it were true, all blacks with any degree of white ancestry would be “sub-human” just as the “ice person” thesis claims whites are; most American blacks, if not all, therefore.

Where does Afrocentrism come from? Historically, it’s a reaction to the tremendous upsurge of racism spurred by 18th and 19th century European imperialism. I think Bernal [Black Athena, Volume I] is right when he points out that after 1800 study of Egypt — and also of the Semitic mid-east— was systematically denigrated for racist reasons. Some scholars reacted against this marginalization of Egypt and the Mid-East, including some black scholars (but not only them). This is the ancestry of Afrocentrism, sketched by Bernal rather convincingly. What is not convincing about Bernal (Volumes 1 and 2) is his derivation of Greek civilization from Egyptian colonists. However, even if it were true, it would not mean what the Afrocentrists say it means.

Today, Afrocentrism is a racist, highly conservative, nationalist pseudo-science (by the latter term I mean: based upon phony scholarship and premises). It victimizes black students almost exclusively, since it is they who have this nonsense foisted off upon them as truth.

The fact that it is tolerated and even promoted at various universities, including the one I teach at, is a tribute to higher education’s racism against black students. This kind of worthless, reactionary crap would never be tolerated if it were being purveyed to white students!

Afrocentrism is another form of authoritarianism. It tells black students: Believe “your leaders” because they are black! Since there’s no evidence worthy of the name for these theses, “believe your black leaders” is all that’s left.

Who are these misleaders, phony scholars? I do not see any division into “responsible” and “irresponsible.” Asante and Karenga write the same kind of nonsense as Jeffries and Welsing. If you want to read some real authoritarian crap from somebody with a Jesus complex (i.e. he believes he’s the chosen of God), read Asante’s Afrocentricity, in which he claims the belief structure was “granted” him as a “vision”, like Paul on the road to Damascus. He even reprints it!

Afrocentrism, being racist against blacks, is useful to the racist US ruling class, and I think that’s why it’s tolerated. It serves to inculcate racist, anti-white views among black students, and to keep them obedient to whatever the highly conservative ‘authorities’ tell them.

The same kind of nationalism flourished in the ’60s, where it served to keep blacks from uniting with anti-racist whites to fight racism. That’s the function of Afrocentrism today, and very valuable it is to the tactic of “divide and conquer”, by which white and black workers and students are kept divided from one another.

However, Afrocentrism is nowhere near as influential as overt anti-black racism of the Murray/Herrnstein Bell Curve kind, or of the D’Amato/Christy Whitman/Joe Bruno kind. Anti-black racism is sharply on the increase, under the guise of “attacking Affirmative Action”, attacks on welfare, and so on.

Racism is on the increase because the ruling class always uses racism to divide the working class against one another, the better to fleece it — to lower the standard of living and increase profits. Afrocentrism helps them, and so continues to flourish, as do the right-wing fascists, militias, etc., all of which are also racist to the core.

Racism is the key issue here. If there were a mass anti-racist movement involving many whites, as there was in the ’60s, the “cultural nationalists” like the Afrocentrists, like the Farrakhans, would be an insignificant force as they were then. As it is, with racism against blacks rising rapidly, and no multi-racial, anti-racist movement, it is the nationalists who appear, to some, to be at least ‘doing something’ about racism, something to assert the equality and dignity of black people. They are not doing this; but the appearance that they are is what attracts many black students and others.

You want to weaken Afrocentrism? FIGHT ANTI-BLACK RACISM!

Grover Furr, English Department

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‘I’m a Russian Occupant’: Viral video justifies imperial aggression

A recently released YouTube video entitled ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’ is a deeply telling panegyric to 19th century-style white man’s burden imperialism, which goes a long way towards explaining what is wrong with the mentality of many Russians today.

It’s a rare occurrence to see proponents of a worldview unironically putting out such a bold (and frankly racist) statement of agency, a statement which approaches Idiocracy levels of parody. One could almost laugh, if this clarion call to unapologetic national pride was not so blatantly supremacist and aggressive.

To put it all in a rather crude nutshell, everything in this part of the world would be crap if it weren’t for the Russians, and it’s crap again because Moscow’s petulant children forgot the benefit of kowtowing to their suzerain. That might sound like an exaggeration. It is not. In a typical display of Russian militaristic bravado, the highly-stylized clip begins with a so-called Little Green Man (slang for the crack Russian troops who took Crimea sans insignia) loading a clip into his AK-100 while the narrator proclaims that being an occupier is his manifest destiny.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Turning his eye to Yermak’s 16th century conquest of Siberia, the video goes full on Heart of Darkness by arguing that now they (whoever they might be) produce oil, gas and “other useful stuff, have “schools and hospitals” and can’t sell women for “a bundle of sable skins” – all thanks to Russian colonial expansion.

I guess one is left to assume that the benefits of 400-plus years of progress would have escaped the indigenous population if it weren’t for the Russians occupation. It’s also strange how putting a stop to selling women for sable skins is brought up as a justification, seeing that rape, enslavement and self-admitted genocidal policies were carried out against the natives, often, and rather ironically, due to the lucrative fur trade.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Serfdom was also being deeply entrenched in Russian society during the same time period, which is to say, Russia was actually moving backwards socially during this period of imperial expansion (legal amendments in 1649 and 1658 made the bulk of Russians slaves in all but name.) So they saved the people from selling their women into slavery so Russians  themselves could sell them into slavery? Right.

The narrator moves on to the Baltics, arguing they were renowned for their high quality radio equipment, cars, famous perfumes and balms during Soviet times.

“I [Russia] was asked to leave them. Now they sell sprats, and part of their people clean toilets in Europe.” 

That the financially robust Baltic states, one of which is projected to reach the economic level of the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway by 2025 (and potentially become one of the top five most productive nations in the world) have been relegated to forage fish sellers and European toilet cleaners is frankly odd.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Central Asia is next, and perhaps an easier target given the authoritarianism and wealth inequality that plagues these states for a number of reasons. Seemingly reducing the five republics of the former Soviet bloc to one homogeneous mass, the narrator sidesteps any substantive issues by saying they are now being saddled with US loans and “growing Cannabis” (with the image of a pot leaf quickly being replaced with a white powder I’m assuming is heroine.)

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Apart from the unforeseen possibility that Colorado has outsourced its pot business to Uzbekistan on the back of high interest loans, I’m not really sure what the narrator is getting at. Another contention, that many migrants now work in Russia in often desperate conditions, is true, though to blame them for the macroeconomic conditions that make some states net importers of guest laborers seems ludicrous.

The reductionist approach also belies the fact that Kazakhstan’s GDP per capita is nominally close to Russia’s, providing economic conditions which attract more Central Asian migrants than any other country in the world (apart from its neighbor to the north.) And what, pray tell, do Russia and Kazakhstan have in common? I’ll give you a hint:

In Ukraine, well you guessed it. Once upon a time they built things, and now all they can do is construct “revolution and dictatorship.” 

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

So looking at all of the chaos that’s been unleashed by one of the worst geopolitical disaster’s of the 20th century, the narrator, whoever he is speaking for, is coming out of the closest (no, not that closet!)

“Yes, I’m an occupant, and I’m tired of apologizing for it. I’m an occupant by birthright, an aggressor and a bloodthirsty monster. Be afraid.” 

The video, unsurprisingly, goes on to deride western hypocrisy, parroting the widely held belief that democracy does not exist, before reducing western values to gays, gays, more gays, and Conchita Wurst (as opposed to transparency, the rule of law, the protection of minorities, civil rights and the regular and predictable transition of power through free and fair elections.)

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

“I politely warn you for the last time, don’t mess with me. I build peace, I love peace, but I know how to fight better than anyone else,” the message, which is quickly dispatched to Barack Obama, concludes.

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Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Kevin Rothrock from Global Voices contacted the alleged creator of the video, a man going by the name of Evgeny Zhurov. Zhurov is emphatic that the professionally produced video was independently made, saying claims of Kremlin involvement are an absolute “lie.”

“These people want to destroy the ‘myth’ about a guy who works ‘for an idea,’” Zhurov said.“They want to make all my work look like it was part of some government contract.”

I for one believe whoever is behind the video is an ancillary point. That the Kremlin would make (or at the very least finance) such a video in a world of internet troll farms and organized-state hysteria is par for the course. What’s more important is the fact that the maker of this video has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Russia. In line with their educational curriculum, many Russians believe in a reductionist view of history which hinges on external invasions of Russia, but ignores numerous instances of Russian aggression against its own neighbors.

It is within this narrative that the myth of the peaceful but ferocious Russian was born. The revelatory part of the video, of course, is that it couples Russians belief in their peaceful nature with its highly militaristic culture, which revels in the idea of being feared. For those who visit Russia, the obsession with power is stark. Some have likened it to a sublimated prison culture, and even in Soviet times, prisoners themselves called the labor camps the ‘small zones’ and the country itself the ‘big zone.’ And this obsession with power manifests itself in virtually every interaction.

When the face of Russia’s domestic propaganda effort Dmitry Kiselyov warned “Russia can turn the US into radioactive dust” last March, he was speaking directly to the Russian id that can resentfully only find parity with their former Cold War rival in its ability to destroy it (and be destroyed in turn.) Russia is a shadow of its former Soviet incarnation, but due to its nuclear arsenal, it most be feared and respected, or so the logic goes.

I already mentioned its reduction of Western values to one gigantic gay pride parade, though there is something interesting in its interpretation of Soviet History. Russians both view the Soviet Union as a Russian imperialistic project and as a commonwealth of brotherly nations coming together for a utopian vision of the future. Many Russians deftly navigate very convoluted waters in which all of the evils of the Soviet Union are blamed on outside anti-Russian forces (often Jews), while at the same time believing that all of the accomplishments of the Soviet Union were in fact Russian accomplishments.

The videos portrayal of the former Soviet republics and Siberia itself as backwaters that would have been nothing if not for Russia’s beneficent occupation is a widely held belief. Jim Kovpak, an amateur historian and author of the popular blog Russia Without BS, summarized this mentality in an article entitled ‘See, this is why nobody likes you.’

“It goes something like this. Russian wants to rant against some former Soviet nationality. It doesn’t matter if its their ‘Slavic brothers’ like the Ukrainians or non-Slavic nationalities like Uzbeks, Tajiks, or Georgians. With the most condescending and patronizing tone, they remind the target of their rant how great they had it under the USSR, or in the case of this article, the Russian Empire. Typically no distinction is made between the two.  

The story is that Muscovite Russians selflessly endeavored and bled to give these people various “gifts” for which they were ungrateful in 1991. Basically it’s the equivalent of a right-wing American telling black Americans that they should be grateful for slavery, or better said a British person lecturing India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan about how great they had it when they were the jewel of the British Empire. The difference being, however, that in the US or UK views like this are often met with sharp criticism, often all across the political spectrum. In Russia they are mainstream and encouraged,” he wrote.

That these views are mainstream and encouraged is obvious in the stellar popularity of ‘I am a Russian Occupant’, which has gathered over 5 million views and 111k likes in some two weeks. One of the most telling aspects of many Russians is that they are supremacists who are enraged that they might be viewed as inferior, anti-PC bigots who will jump at the slightest mischaracterization of their own people, self-proclaimed lovers of peace who are militarists obsessed with power and respect, patronizing colonialists who are deeply resentful that neighboring nations do not respect the paternalistic yoke.

These contradictions are the source of a great deal of internal strife that manifests itself externally, as the pressure of cognitive dissonance rarely dissipates of its own accord. And often, the psychic fault lines between reality and delusion create tremors in the real world.

It would be easy to dismiss this clip if it weren’t so telling. After all, it is the worldview it depicts (a false belief that it is Russia’s “birthright” to keep their backwards and rebellious children in the fold) that drove the Kremlin to rip Ukraine apart rather than let it choose its own path. Taken in that light, there is nothing funny about ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’ at all.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нетю

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нетю

Source

KKE (1918-55) (Anasintaxi): Video and Photos from Presentation of Books

K. Natsikas (member of the PC of Anasintaxi), S. Zachariadis, T. Mpallos, et al.

K. Natsikas (member of the PC of Anasintaxi), S. Zachariadis, T. Mpallos, et al.

Alexis Parnis (poet and close friend of N. Zachariadis) and Tassos Mpallos

Alexis Parnis (poet and close friend of N. Zachariadis) and Tassos Mpallos

Sifis (Josef) Zachariadis under his father’s portrait

Sifis (Josef) Zachariadis under his father’s portrait

Source

“Theses on Art” from the League of Socialist Artists

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Introduction from Alliance for web presentation (Alliance 2000).

The “Theses on Art,” were put forward in 1972, by the “League of Socialist Artists”; and the “Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain (MLOB).”

The latter was the progenitor of the Communist League (CL).

This article was first re-printed by Alliance in hard copy with poems of Nazim Hikmet, as illustrated by the Socialist artist Maureen Scott, in issue number 8.

We have still not found a better and more concise and clear expression of Socialist aesthetics and thus offer this in web form.

It is preceded by short introductions to the First and the Second Editons.
After the “Theses,” is a short “Manifesto Of Socialist Arts.”

This, will form the first part of an on-going series on socialist aesthetics.

INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EDITION

Of all spheres of Marxist-Leninist science, none has been so neglected, both by its classic founders and subsequent practitioners, as that of aesthetics. So far as the written heritage of Marx, Engels and Lenin is concerned, they were all to one degree or another compelled by the intensity of the struggle to concentrate their attention almost exclusively on problems more directly and closely relevant to the class struggle of the proletariat. In the case of J. V. Stalin an admittedly altogether larger contribution was made, but this again was restricted to certain fundamental theoretical questions largely concerned with the relationship between base and superstructure. (‘Marxism and Linguistics’)

The two names most closely associated with the development of Marxist aesthetics are, without doubt, Andrei Zhdanov and Georg Lukacs (Cf. Speech at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers: A. Zhdanov; and Lukacs’ many works of theory and criticism, of which ‘The Historical Novel’ is perhaps the most important). As regards problems relating more generally to questions of reflective and effective content, it was Zhdanov who took the vitally important initiative, at a crucial moment in the history of the –Soviet Union and the CPSU(B), to combat various manifestations of schematic (mechanical or idealist distortions in the realisation of effective content) and formalism (abdication from the need to develop content through concentration on questions of form, not to illuminate and express an effective content, but for their own sake).

On the other hand, the work of Lukacs – so much lengthier, more complete and systematised than Zhdanov’s speeches – manifests certain tendencies towards over-estimating the value of classical critical realism in the literature of the bourgeoisie, and to evaluate these on an equal level with socialist realism to the detriment of the latter. Furthermore, since the collapse of the international communist movement to modern revisionism subsequent upon the death of J.V. Stalin, Lukacs has been at pains to repudiate his earlier correct, not to say pioneering, work and is now performing yeoman service on behalf of the right-revisionist centre in Moscow. This he is doing by denying in general any validity whatever of aesthetics as a science – thereby negating both his own earlier work and the objective growth and subjective need by the class conscious revolutionary proletariat wherever it may arise, of an art and Literature fully capable of expressing the world view and historical destiny of the proletariat as the prime mover of the socialist revolution.

The experience of past revolutionary movements of the proletariat – in particular in such developed monopoly capitalist countries as Germany, France, Britain and Italy before the rise of modern revisionism – reveals that, whereas revolutionary art may have been considered at that time as very much a secondary matter – as almost a luxury, in fact – today it has become a prime necessity to the building of any revolutionary proletarian mass movement in those countries. The tremendously intensified and wide-spread scale on which fetishistic, sensuously degraded and formalist art is being deployed for the purpose of achieving the more-or-less universal corruption of standards of judgment, sensitivity of emotional response and, ultimately, stultification of intellectual insight and capacity amongst ever more numerous sections of the working people, renders the task of neutralising this poison through the creation of an alternative organised network of centres of collective, proletarian cultural and artistic work of, by and for the class conscious revolutionary proletariat one of the fundamental prerequisites for the growth of the revolutionary mass movement, the mass base of the socialist revolution, to the necessary level of overwhelming superiority of forces which is indispensable if the vastly powerful and predatory state apparatus of monopoly capital is to be smashed and destroyed and the state of the democratic dictatorship of the working class is to achieve final victory. This work of revolutionary creativity and creation will form a vitally important part of the process of growth and the steady consolidation day by day of the structure and cohesive organisation of the revolutionary Red Front.

This great and growing regenerative cultural front, the inspirer and mobiliser of the working masses, the agency for their liberation from the soporific anodyne of culture-reaction, would enable workers and working people at all levels of class consciousness and militancy, each level through its appropriate forms, to contribute to the growth of the new proletarian-socialist culture which, like the socialist revolution itself, must and can only be born and grow strong out of that cleansing and purifying crucible of experience which is the bitter, steely hard, pitilessly uncompromising and all-demanding revolutionary class struggle which will surely arise and develop throughout the coming corporate-fascist era of capitalism, the eleventh hour of capitalism’s doom.

It is for all these reasons, of course, that the concealed representatives of monopoly capital posing within the ranks of the proletariat as “progressive artists,” at the head of which stand those hardened enemies of the working class and socialism, the modern revisionists and trotskyites, have obstructed the development of socialist aesthetics. In two recently published journals in particular – “Artery,” the journal of the revisionist Communist Party’s artists group, and “7 Days,” the latest essay in pop-kitsch produced by the businessmen of the “New Left” – have these reactionary tasks been taken up. Thus, in the October 1971 edition of “Artery,” we read, in an article by the revisionist “theoretician” Mike Steadman:

“Again, whilst the notion of Realism may be a very powerful tool in literary criticism, or in criticism of the visual arts, we are often guilty of quite grandiosely exterpolating and extending this analysis from one sort of art form, where it may be applicable, to other forms where it is not. Correspondingly, I believe that our all too frequent insistence that art is good art which most furthers the class struggle is another and related criterion which collapses before the same objection. My feeling is, that we have failed to develop a Marxist theory of art despite the fact of brilliant work by individual theoreticians in particular fields.” (‘Artery’, page 5).

By propagating this kind of liberal eclecticism, the treacherous revisionists attempt at one and the same time to “destroy” the unity of Marxist-Leninist theory and to give themselves the airs of “learned fools,” as Lenin once called this type of class traitor.

A little further we read:

‘The battle, the class struggle in art, is between the way in which industrial society alienates the human being and what we believe is to be the way in which we should struggle against this. That is, in raising as a political goal, raising in our daily lives, the need to expand, continuously, the art of a free creative labour.”(ibid; p 6).

So, in the place of the struggle to mobilise and build up the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat stage by stage in preparation for the socialist revolution, we are presented with the misty goal of a mythical struggle –so fine-sounding in words, but devoid of any real class significance – to realise “free creative labour” even whilst capitalist production relations and the dictatorship of the capitalist class through its oppressive state apparatus still exist. The work of the co-partners of, revisionism in this counter-revolutionary task, the trotskyites, complements the encouragement of bourgeois dictatorship in the arts by advocating the “progressive” character of the distorted drug-orientated “underground culture” fanned by ‘capitalism and attacking the genuine struggle for a’ revolutionary culture.

In the coming final stage of growth of the proletarian-socialist revolution which lies ahead, both in the developed countries and on a world scale, the revolutionary proletariat will need its Gorkys, its Ostrovskys, its Anna Seghers. It is as a concise, simple and yet fully comprehensive theoretical guide to action in commencing upon the long and difficult tasks revealed in this guide that the Provisional Committee of the Union of Socialist Artists has prepared and published this outline of socialist principles of aesthetic science. Long and fruitfully may it serve all fighters for a revolutionary art underlying and illuminating the hard road to the victory of the proletarian-socialist revolution!

Provisional Committee,
LEAGUE OF SOCIALIST ARTISTS;
March 1972.

The LEAGUE OF SOCIALIST ARTISTS pledges themselves:

a) To work for socialism – a society based on the political power of the working people in which production is planned in their interests.

b) To work towards the development of a revolutionary art and to place that art at the service of the working people, in broad affiliation with the Red Front Movement and under the overall leadership of the Marxist–Leninist Organisation of Britain, in such a way that it functions as an inspiration and a weapon to them in the class struggle and in the emerging revolutionary movement to establish and maintain a socialist society.

Printed and published by the League of Socialist Artists.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SECOND EDITION

The appearance of a second and revised edition of the “Theses on Art” requires no lengthy comment. The fact that a first printing of 1,000 copies should have been exhausted in the relatively short space of 12 months alone provides a sufficient indication that the Theses are beginning to find their proper application as a theoretical guide to action for a small but growing number of worker-artists with a developing revolutionary-socialist consciousness and understanding, and who are anxious to place their talents at the service of the historic cause of the working class.

In this connection, it is perhaps not accidental that the publication of the Theses some eighteen months ago should have marked the beginning of a period in which the League of Socialist Artists has undergone a small but significant growth in the scope and quality of its tasks and activities. Typical of these have been the formation of the League of Socialist Artists Film Unit and the initiation of work to produce a series of propaganda films, and also the development of the poster workshop.

Apart from the exhaustion of available stocks and the correction of a few textual errors, the publication of a 2nd Edition has to a large degree been motivated by the need to re-formulate and extend the section on Beauty, in order to bring this hitherto highly esoteric – but in fact fundamentally important question more fully into line with the latest advances made in the infant science of dialectical-materialist revolutionary aesthetics. In particular, the all important psychological component in the formation of subjective responses to and appreciation of beauty – hitherto completely ignored by Marxist-Leninists – is now given its first clear, even if necessarily brief and sketchy outline. The important task of subjecting this germinal thesis to a complete theoretical elaboration in the light of the dialectical-materialist scientific method is one which must and will be taken up and developed further by students of scientific revolutionary aesthetics at the earliest moment consistent with the maintenance of essential priorities in the discharge of work and tasks.

Finally, the appearance of this 2nd Edition will, do doubt, give occasion for still louder and more frenetic accusations of “dogmatism,” “schematism,” “intellectual arrogance” and other allegedly anti-popular sins. That the Theses should have attracted their fair share of such attacks on the part of Trotskyite, Maoist and other disruptors and demagogues of petty-bourgeois class orientation was, of course, only to be expected, and of these there have been not a few, including one from an American Maoist (the subject of a forthcoming pamphlet) – the only one, incidentally, which summoned sufficient critical acumen and courage as to be expressed in written form – which condemns the Theses on the grounds that they attempt to “decide in words all questions of revolutionary aesthetics,” and that this allegedly “leaves the people out.” As Marxist-Leninists, as revolutionary proletarian-socialist artists we naturally treasure such attacks and savour them keenly – not, of course, because we ascribe the slightest objective validity to the ideas they propound, but because they provide us with a clear and reliable guide, by inverse example, that the League Of Socialist Artist cadres are working along fundamentally correct lines and in accordance with theoretical principles which are scientifically true.

However this may be, the experience of the period since the publication of the 1st Edition fully confirms the view that the “Theses” are proving their worth to those who comprehend the role of scientific Marxist-Leninist theory in the task of solving the vastly intricate and many-sided problems associated with the further growth and widespread dissemination of art-works and their corresponding art-forms capable of expressing, in all their conflict-ridden richness and complexity, the life and struggles of the working class in general and the proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement in particular. If we of the League of Socialist Artists have at least made a beginning in working out these essential theoretical principles of scientific revolutionary aesthetics, principles which can then assist tens, later hundreds and ultimately thousands of worker-artists with a proletarian-socialist consciousness and allegiance to master the media in which they work and to fashion them into works of socialist realism, in all art-forms, sufficiently truthful and insighted in content and powerful and sensitive in form as to arouse the respect and deepen the under-standing of at least, under present conditions, the most advanced class-conscious workers, we shall feel justified in the belief that our work has made a small but valuable contribution to the long and difficult task of mobilising and building the philosophically and politically conscious proletarian revolutionary movement and its scientific socialist-Leninist vanguard party.

Provisional Committee, LEAGUE OF SOCIALIST ARTISTS,
September 1973

THESES ON ART

ART

Art is a form of production in which the producer (the artist) endeavours to create, through its product (the work of art), certain thoughts and feelings in the minds of consumers (those who see, hear, read etc. his work of art).

In the words of J.V. Stalin:

“The artist is the engineer of the human soul.”

Clearly, it cannot be a matter of indifference to Socialists what kind of thoughts and feelings works of art create – whether they tend, objectively, to help forward the working class in its historical task of destroying the capitalist state in a socialist revolution, of establishing its own political power and of proceeding to construct a Socialist society; or whether they tend, objectively, to hold back the working class from these fundamental tasks.

SUBJECT

The subject of a work of art is simply what it is about – sunflowers, the Marriage of Figaro, Paradise Lost, the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, the construction of the Dnieper dam.

CONTENT

The content of a work of art is the character imparted to its subject. by the artist, a character which reflects the artist’s intellectual and emotional – in short, psychological – attitude towards his subject.

The content of a work of art comprises two inter-related components:
1) the reflective content, and
2) the effective content.

The reflective content of a work of art is the reflection in this work of art of the artist’s world outlook – itself the subjective expression of his whole life experience. This world outlook is essentially that of the social class to which the artist belongs or with which he identifies his interests. The reflective content of a work of art may be described in terms of the social class which holds the particular world outlook reflected in this content, or in terms of the social system in which this class is the ruling class. Thus, we may speak of the capitalist or bourgeois reflective content of a work of art (where this reflects the world outlook of the capitalist class or bourgeoisie), and of the working class, proletarian or socialist reflective content of a work of art (where this reflects the world outlook of the working class or proletariat, which is the ruling class in a socialist society).

The effective content of a work of art consists of the particular thoughts and feelings, which the artist endeavours to create in the minds of consumers through the work of art concerned. The effective content of a work of art is described in terms of the social effects which these thoughts and feelings tend, objectively, to produce: as progressive (where these thoughts and feelings tend, objectively to further the development of society) or as reactionary (where these thoughts and feelings tend, objectively, to hold back or turn back the development of society).

In the period when the bourgeoisie was playing an objectively revolutionary role in leading the mass of the people to break the fetters of feudalism, art with a bourgeois reflective content had a progressive effective content. Today, when the role of the bourgeoisie is to hold back the overthrow of the objectively obsolete capitalist social system, art with a bourgeois reflective content has a reactionary effective content. The inter-relation between the reflective and effective components of the content of a work of art is thus a variable one, dependent on the stage of the development of the society in which the work of art is produced.

The more conscious an artist is of the class basis of the reflective content of his art and of the social effects of its effective content, the closer will the two components of the content of his art be integrated, and the more will the reflective content reinforce the effective content – the more powerful will be the thoughts and feelings created by his art.

Before the development of the scientific materialist conception of history, the basis of which was laid by Karl Marx, an artist could at the most be only partly conscious of the class basis of the reflective content of his art and of the social effects of its effective content.

Today it is possible for an artist who has mastered the scientific materialist conception of history, who has embraced wholeheartedly and from within the innermost core of his psychological make-up the cause of the working class and of Socialism, to be fully conscious of the class basis of the effective content, so that the two components of the content of his art reinforces the progressive effective content to make it a powerful ideological weapon in the service of the working class and of Socialism.

FORM

The form of a work of art is the manner in which an artist constructs his work of art in order to express its content. On the form of a work of art depends its capacity to communicate its content to consumers.

The form of a work of art is described in terms of the degree to which it truthfully reflects its subject, that is, in terms of the degree of its realism. The further the form of a work of art departs from realism, the nearer it approaches to abstraction, in which the form of a work of art reflects its subject in no discernible way. An abstract painting is composed of shapes and colours, which reflect reality in no discernible way, an abstract poem is composed of sounds without discernible meaning, and so on.

AESTHETICS

Questions of quality, of “goodness” and “badness,” in art belong to what is called aesthetics.

To many people aesthetics is a subjective matter, a question of personal taste. To such people a work of art is “good” to one person if he likes it, while the same work of art may be “bad’ to another person if he dislikes it.

To scientific Socialists a work of art is good if its effective content is progressive and its form is such that this effective content is readily communicable to consumers, that is, if its form is realist.

In the period when the bourgeoisie was playing an objectively revolutionary role in leading the mass of the people to break the fetters of feudalism, art with a bourgeois reflective content had a progressive effective content and, to the extent that it was also realist in form, it was aesthetically good.

Today, when the role of the bourgeoisie is to hold back the overthrow of the objectively obsolete capitalist social system, art with a bourgeois reflective content has a reactionary effective content and, irrespective of its form, it was aesthetically bad.

Today, aesthetically good art can only be proletarian socialist in reflective content (and so progressive in effective content) and realist in form – can only, in other words, take the form of socialist realism.

BEAUTY

Beauty is that combination of qualities in a work of art, which affects the fundamental psychological and personality attributes of a consumer in positive manner. A work of art, which so affects those attributes, is beautiful to that particular consumer- whilst one which fails to so affect them is either not beautiful to him – i.e. is one to which his psychology and personality are either not able to respond or else-which he finds consciously ugly.

The same work of art may affect the psyche of one consumer in a positive way and the psyche of another consumer in a negative way – that is, it may be beautiful to one consumer and ugly to another. The beauty (or non-beauty, or ugliness) of a work of art is not, therefore, an objective attribute of a work of art; it is a subjective attribute which has meaning only in relation to a particular consumer, or to a particular category of consumers.

Aesthetics is sometimes defined as “the critical appreciation of beauty.” Scientific socialists reject this definition, since the beauty of a work of art is subjective, relative to a particular consumer or to a particular category of consumers, while the aesthetic quality of a work of art is, as has been said, objective, inherent in the work of art itself.

Whether a particular work of art is beautiful (or non-beautiful, or ugly) to a particular consumer depends, therefore, on more than mere sensory perception; it depends on the dialectical interaction and ultimate synthesis in one affective moment of response of all three of the above fundamental psychological attributes of personality:

sensory perception, intellectual judgment and emotional responsiveness.

This response is, in turn, dependent upon a complex of psychological characteristics built up during the consumer’s life experience, which may be called the consumer’s canons of beauty. The closer the content and form of a work of art correspond to the consumer’s canons of beauty, the more beautiful it is to him. As the consumer’s life experience continues, as the external world and his relations with it change, so do his canons of beauty change and develop in and through the psychological processes described above.

Within a particular society at a particular time, there are generally accepted canons of beauty just as there are generally accepted canons of morality, and these are socially determined. These generally accepted canons of beauty are those which best serve the interests of that society at that period – in the case of a class-divided society, those which best serve the interests of the ruling class at that period. As society changes, or as the interests of the ruling class within a particular society change, so do the generally accepted canons of beauty change.

Within a capitalist society in decay, such as that which exists in Britain at the present time, an aesthetically good socialist realist work of art affects, generally speaking, the psychological responsiveness of members of the capitalist class in a negative way; it appears ugly to them. Furthermore, it is in sharp contradiction with the generally accepted canons of beauty imposed on decaying capitalist society by the ruling capitalist class, and so is ugly to all consumers who accept these generally accepted canons of beauty. Here, therefore, there is a contradiction between aesthetic quality and beauty. On the other hand, the same work of art will affect in a positive way the psychological attributes of a consumer who is thoroughly socialist, who has thrown off the generally accepted bourgeois canons of beauty in favour of canons of beauty which serve the interests of the working class; to him it will be beautiful. Here, therefore, there is no contradiction between aesthetic quality and beauty.

In a capitalist society the canons of beauty of the ruling capitalist class are, by and large, accepted by the petty bourgeois intelligentsia – who are, in fact, the main proponents of these canons of beauty within society. But with the increasing decay of capitalist society at the stage of advanced imperialism and the consequent rise to dominance of formalist art, the canons of beauty of the ruling monopoly capitalist class cease to be “generally accepted,” in that they come to be rejected by the working class. The contradiction between aesthetic quality and the canons of beauty of the ruling class is now so great that it cannot be bridged, so far the working class is concerned, even by the use of all the ideological and propaganda resources at the disposal of the ruling class – which naturally, seeks to meet the situation by instilling in the minds of the workers the conception that beauty in art (and even art itself in all but its crudest, merely soporific, narcotic forms) is inappropriate for workers. This leads to the workers becoming largely sealed off from serious art and to the stunting of their sense of beauty, i.e., of the capacity to have their personality attributes in any way affected by serious works of art.

Thus, the awakening of the sense of beauty in the working class is an important part of the work of Socialist artists. It is in itself a potentially revolutionary act, an important aspect of the overall task of generating the revolutionary energies of the working class.

REALISM AND NATURALISM

Realism, the true reflection of reality in a work of art, does not mean mere photographic representation.

Scientific Socialists understand that, beneath the surface of something which appears static, the forces of change and development are at work, so that the thing itself is changing and developing, even though we cannot see this process on the surface.

True realism, therefore, penetrates beneath the surface of things to reveal the process of their change. Only scientific Socialism, the world outlook known as dialectical materialism, provides the key to penetrating beneath the surface of things; only a Socialist artist who has made Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism, his world outlook, can, therefore, be a complete realist in the form of his art.

Suppose a writer wishes to reflect in a novel the contemporary reality in Britain. On the surface one sees a working class which is far from revolutionary, a youth which has been corrupted on a wider scale than any previous generation, a country in which Marxist-Leninists can almost be counted on the fingers.

But this is a superficial and false picture. Scientific socialists, by their analysis of British contemporary capitalist society, understand that forces are at work which are in process of transforming the working class into an invincible revolutionary force, led by a strong vanguard party.

True realism in art, therefore, means the portrayal not so much of what lies on the surface of things (this is naturalism, not realism), but of what lies beneath the surface. It also involves the selection from all the infinite entities that make up reality of those which are significant in portraying the changing, developing essence of this reality.

Realism differs also from naturalism in that it permits deviation from naturalistic representation where this assists in the fuller expression of the aspect of reality concerned. In satire, in the cartoon, features are exaggerated not to falsify reality, but to heighten it.

If an artist paints the grass in a meadow red merely as a “gimmick,” this falsifies reality. But if he paints the grass in the exercise yard of the Attica State Prison red, to symbolise the massacre which took place there in 1971, this may well serve to heighten the realism of the painting.

Realism differs from naturalism also in that it concentrates the social essence of individuals into the type. As Maxim Gorky expresses it in “Literature and Life”:

“When a writer describes some shopkeeper, official or worker of his acquaintance, he is merely producing some more or less successful likeness of an individual; but such a likeness will remain a mere photograph, without any socially educative significance, and will contribute almost nothing either in breadth or in depth to our knowledge of life and of our fellow men. But if the writer is able to extract from twenty or fifty or a hundred shopkeepers, officials or workers the characteristic traits, habits, tastes, gestures, beliefs, mannerisms typical of them as a class and if he can bring these traits to life in a single shopkeeper, official or worker, he will have created a type and his work will be a work of art.”

BOURGEOIS CRITICAL REALISM

The unscientific, metaphysical world outlook of the bourgeois artist – a world outlook which underlies all bourgeois art, whether its effective content be progressive or reactionary – draws the content of his work towards one or other of the apparently opposite poles of mystical idealism, or arid mechanical materialism. It effectively prevents him from achieving that all-round, universalised, penetrating, developmental understanding of his subject which constitutes the hallmark of proletarian-socialist realism.

Since the inherent, objective laws of development of society are a closed book to the bourgeois artist, metaphysics must for him take the place of scientific method. Thus, even when the objective situation of the capitalist class to which the artist belongs is a progressive one, impelling him towards a progressive effective content in his work, this content is necessarily limited in its scope, in its insight, in its treatment of character and society’s processes. He may be capable of revealing the social evils, which are inherent in capitalist society even in its progressive stage of development, but he can discern neither the basic laws of motion of capitalist society nor the true role of the working class as the social force destined by history to resolve the contradictions of capitalist society by abolishing it and replacing it by a socialist society.

This type of progressive bourgeois art is termed by revolutionary Socialists bourgeois critical realism, because it can reveal in a critical way, through a superficial depiction of character and events, much of what is wrong with capitalist society, but can neither probe beneath the surface to reveal the basic causes of those evils nor point the way forward to their solution in a socialist society.

As far as form is concerned, therefore, bourgeois critical realism tends towards naturalism rather than realism (as in the work of such artists as Charles Dickens, Emile Zola and Gustav Flaubert). In the most developed work of bourgeois critical realism, however, (such as those of Ludwig van Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Georg Buchner, Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Mahler) a close approximation to true realism in form is realised.

Socialist realism bases itself upon and further develops the finest achievements of bourgeois critical realism, overcoming in the course of this development the limitations of content and form of the latter in order to achieve a truthful, penetrating, developmental and powerfully moving treatment of reality.

DISTORTED REALISM

Art which directly serves the interests of the capitalist class in the period of the decay of its social usefulness is at first glance realist in form, in that its images are recognisable reflections of real life in comparison with the abstractions, which make up the greater part of modern painting with a bourgeois content. This must be so in order that its reactionary effective content the thoughts or feelings which serve the interests of the capitalist class may be communicated to consumers. But because, in the period of the decay and disintegration of capitalist society, a truly realistic representation of the world cannot serve the interests of the capitalist class, its images are necessarily distortions of reality.

In a play with a bourgeois content about a strike, the workers may be physically recognisable as workers in that they wear overalls, live in council flats, etc. But they are distorted, in general, into sheep-like figures, easily led by some militant leader, who because of some psychopathological aggressive complex or because he is in the service of a foreign power, “pulls them out” on a futile strike which harms their interests.

FORMALISM

But for every hack artist who – is prepared to sell his integrity to the capitalist class for money, there are a dozen honest artists. These artists see the corruption, exploitation and immorality, which are all pervading features of capitalism in decay. Unless, therefore, they are revolutionary Socialists who can portray this reality truthfully with a Socialist content, they find the real world too unpleasant to reflect truthfully in their work. They therefore repudiate content more or less completely, take their stand on the slogan “Art for art’s sake” (which rejects the conception of social content in art) and base their art purely on form: on abstract or semi-abstract images. It is this repudiation of content and concentration on form that revolutionary Socialists call “formalism.”

NATIONAL FORM AND COSMOPOLITANISM

All art is necessarily the product of a particular community, and the reality of this community is national in substance; it is the reality of a particular nation, the characteristics of which are determined by the language, geography, economic life, psychological make-up and culture of that nation.

Art which is truly realistic in form, therefore, is also national in form. Furthermore, it is built upon and further develops that part of the cultural heritage of the nation which is progressive in its effective content.

Art which repudiates the national in its form in the direction of cosmopolitanism also deviates, therefore, from realism.

RELATION BETWEEN CONTENT AND FORM

In the relation between content and form in art, it is content which – at least in the broad developmental sense – determines the form in and through which this content is realised.

As, within a particular society, the existing mode of production becomes moribund, and the objective and subjective conditions mature for the birth of a new, higher mode of production (in our epoch, Socialism), new, political, ideological and other social factors impinge upon the life experience of the artist. To the extent that he absorbs the world outlook of the rising class whose interests are bound up with the, coming new mode of production (in our epoch, the world outlook of the working class), his art takes on a new reflective content and a new progressive effective content. This ultimately leads him to discard, or at least to modify positively, the existing, dominant art forms and to develop new ones more suited to act as expressions of this new content.

When Ludwig van Beethoven began to compose, he was content to use the classical sonata form he inherited from Mozart and Haydn, But at a certain stage in the maturing of the bourgeois reflective content and the progressive effective content of his music, he became aware that the complexity, power and objective realism of his sound-world was suffering through the attempt to pour new wine into old bottles. He therefore found it necessary to create a new symphonic form, that of the choral symphony, in which the scope, emotional impact and intelligibility of this content was greatly enhanced in complexity and degree of integration, partly through the inclusion of the choral poem, partly through the much greater fluidity and expressive flexibility of the thematic structure and the melodic line itself.

A similar process is to be, observed in the development of the modern novel, in particular in the transition from limited, naturalistically stunted critical realism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie ( e.g., Emile Zola, Thomas Mann) to the socially penetrating insight achieved in the socialist realist literature of the revolutionary working class (e.g., Maxim Gorki).

In the relation between content and form, it is, therefore, content which plays the primary role, while form arises out of and serves content as its vehicle of expression. It is the function of technique to serve content and form equally.

It must be understood, however, that the content of a work of art does not determine its form in any direct, mechanical way, but dialectically – that is to say, by creating the general conditions in and through which a change of form becomes necessary, or in which the adoption of one form as against another becomes preferable. Were this not so, the task of a Marxist-Leninist Party or of such organisations as Socialist Artists in the sphere of art could be confined to political education; an artist who acquired the political outlook of revolutionary Socialism and the desire to make the content of his art Socialist would be unable to create works of art in any but a realist form. In fact, an artist may be a revolutionary Socialist, a Marxist-Leninist, in every sphere but that of aesthetics, determined that every one of his artistic creations shall be imbued with a Socialist content – yet he may produce art which is non-realist in form.

While the content of a work of art is determined by the social outlook of the artist, its form is determined by his aesthetic outlook and his mastery of technique at the moment of its creation. It is, therefore, the task of the Marxist-Leninist Party and of such organisations as Socialist Artists to educate artists not only in the principles of revolutionary Socialism (so that their art may be imbued with Socialist content) but also in Marxist-Leninist aesthetics and in technique, so that this content may be expressed in appropriate realist form.

Content is not primary and form secondary because the former is more important than the latter. A work of art which is Socialist in content but non-realist in form lacks the capacity to communicate its socialist content to consumers; it is of no more value to the working class – and so is of no higher aesthetic quality – than a work of art which is bourgeois in content. Form and content are of equal importance for the Socialist artist. But the primacy of content over form must be recognised if the artist is to achieve the fullest realisation of form in the service of content, and of technique in the service of both.

REVISIONISM AND ART

Revisionism is a perversion of Marxism-Leninism to serve the interests of the capitalist class.

The modern revisionists, for the most part, reject the Marxist-Leninist concepts of progressive and reactionary effective content in art. They hold that aesthetic questions – i.e. questions of quality in art – must be confined to questions of craftsmanship.

On the basis that art which directly serves the interests of the capitalist class is realist in form (as discussed above), they hold that “revolutionary art” must break with the “reactionary” heritage of realist -art and embrace cosmopolitanism.

To the modern revisionists, the changed role of art in a socialist society means no more than the wider availability of art to the working people.

But, clearly, the interests of the working class and of socialism are not served by the wider availability, to the working people of art which serve’s the interests of the capitalist class – the class enemy of the working-class.

In fact, art which serves the interests of the capitalist class is widely available to the working people, within a capitalist society. A worker has little difficulty in obtaining access to the strip cartoons in the “Daily Mirror”; he can watch “Coronation Street” on TV; he can listen to “pop” music almost throughout his spare time; he can visit a “working man’s club”; and watch strip-tease shows every week-end.

The whole educational and propaganda apparatus of the ruling class in capitalist society is directed towards inculcating the idea: that these forms of “art” are appropriate for working people, while ballet and painting are for upper class homosexuals.

But the “art” which the ruling capitalist class directs to the working class is designed not only to make profits for its sponsors, but also to “divert” the working class, to drug them into acceptance of their role as an exploited class.

In the former socialist societies of Eastern Europe, the modern revisionists took the first steps towards the restoration of capitalism in the sphere of art. In the name of “artistic freedom,” they supported the introduction of art with a bourgeois content, declaring that the Marxist-Leninists had no business to seek to “interfere” in artistic questions. The introduction of art with a decadent bourgeois content served as preliminary ideological preparation for the introduction of bourgeois ideas in the sphere of economics and politics.

THE BATTLE OF IDEAS IN ART

The battle of ideas in art – between ideas which serve the interests of the working-class and those which serve the interests of the capitalist class, between the ideas of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics and those of revisionist aesthetics – reflects the class struggle in society between the working class and the capitalist class.

It is the task of Socialist artists to take their stand in this battle firmly on the side of the working class, to develop art which is Socialist in content and realist in form, – to make of their art a weapon in the struggle of the working class to destroy the capitalist state and construct a Socialist society.

“END OF THESES”

FROM THE MANIFESTO OF THE LEAGUE OF SOCIALIST ARTISTS

The epoch in which, as workers and artists, we live and pursue our creative work is one which bears as its fundamental feature the decay of the capitalist system based on exploitation and oppression and the maturing of the objective conditions making possible its final destruction at the hands of the revolutionary working people.

The supreme task of historical creation confronting all workers, of which we artists to an increasing degree are becoming a social part, is, to develop the science of the proletarian socialist revolution, Marxism-Leninism, in theory and in practice;

To organise to carry through that revolution to the end; thereby to destroy the capitalist system, root and branch, in country after country and in every quarter of the globe. . .

The securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques.

It is within this revolutionary historical context that the confines of class dominated society, with its anti-human inheritance of exploitation, poverty and war, will be overcome and the objective social conditions created for the expansion of the boundaries of man’s knowledge and mastery of the natural universe around him.

Within these overall historic tasks of the proletarian-socialist revolution a role of unprecedented importance devolves upon the arts, and hence upon creative artists. For it is precisely through art that science, the knowledge–understanding and experience of the laws of motion of the universe, including particularly of human society, is distilled into generalised, concentrated form, is transmuted into those at one and the same time concrete and typical, images which are capable of arousing the most profound and stirring emotions -of the human soul, even whilst it is developing conscious intellectual awareness of the objective phenomena which those images symbolise and typify.

Thus artists, whether of the visual or the dramatic arts, are no less than “engineers of the human soul” (J.V. Stalin);

and a correspondingly vital significance attaches to their work in furtherance of that highest single creative task of the modern epoch: the carrying through to victory of the world proletarian – socialist revolution.

Taking the above principles as our fundamental guide, we Socialist Artists hold that art is a definite form of social consciousness. Proletarian socialist art is a reflection in artistic form of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie, which lies at the heart of all social reality. The method of artistic creation of proletarian-socialist art is therefore proletarian-socialist realism. There can be no art without a fundamental philosophy, a basic world view.

And since all philosophy, all world views, are class philosophy, the world view of a class, there can likewise be no art which is not class art. The philosophical foundation of proletarian-socialist realism is dialectical materialism which provides all forms-of artistic sensibility with the objective scientific tool for cognising truthfully the real world.

Proletarian-socialist realism rests upon the firm foundation of human culture as a whole which has developed historically within class society. It recognises that the working class must utilise the finest and highest products of all previous culture in order to create there from the general basis for the development of its own infinitely more sensible, more dramatically intense and varied art and culture. It recognises that the highest achievement of all past art is critical realism. Proletarian socialist realism begins where this critical realism ends, distils from it all that was revealing of social reality, overcomes its weaknesses and one sided-nesses and thereby elevates art to a new and higher stage.

Proletarian-socialist realism is an active, affirmative realism. It upholds the principle of “being as deed.” Such an affirmative view of human practice is indissolubly fused together with a critical attitude towards the art of the past and a revolutionary-romantic consciousness of contemporary social and class reality in the light of the socialist future. In this sense proletarian-socialist realism anticipates creatively the future.

Proletarian-socialist realism possesses as one of the prime features of its aesthetic the creation of generally valid social characters and figures who express in their innermost being the laws of motion of history and society as a whole. Proletarian-socialist realism requires the delineation of typical characters living and moving in atypical environment and under typical conditions. It requires a historically and socially concrete typicalisation of dramaturgical elements in works of art, but this typicalisation must be combined with, the utmost individuality and qualitative distinctness of characters and figures, and must avoid all tendencies towards stereotyped caricatures.

Proletarian-socialist realism maintains that, for a genuinely progressive, revolutionary art serving the proletarian-socialist revolution, content is primary and plays the definitive role within any one work of art, whilst form, which itself is of vital significance to the artistically and aesthetically affective properties of the work, is secondary and reflects and serves that content. Thus we stand for the unity of form and content based on the primacy of content.

Being aware of the unbridgeable abyss in the cultural superstructure of decaying capitalism, we Socialist Artists declare our aims and work to stand completely apart from and in irreconcilable-opposition to the formalism and commodity fetishism of capitalist art- which serves at one and the same time – to mystify the movement and conflict of social classes, to preach and inculcate the helplessness of man before the “unknowable” universe and the “atomic chaos” of the “existentialist” society, as also to provide the effete, luxury loving ruling class with those soporific, sensationalised and alienated titbits which might, for an hour or a day, provide an anodyne to bring forgetfulness of the moment of doom for their class which the approaching proletarian socialist revolution is bringing ever nearer. In opposition to this we declare our aim to be the pursuit, the active construction and direction of an art which, in all its richness, its myriad fronts and facets; reflects and serves the struggle of the working people for socialism and communism; and which develops for this purpose aesthetic forms of expression which are at one and the same time organically free in relation to their content and yet ordered by the single function of serving to reflect that content; complex and many-sided as the realist stuff itself which they express – -yet unified by a single fundamental principle: to express truthfully the real world of class conflict and revolutionary mobilisation which lies beneath the surface of that average spontaneous activity which is all the vulgar empiricist or idealist mystifier can perceive, and who for that reason is at the mercy of every reactionary wind that blows from out of the vortex of disintegrating capitalism.

In place of the pop art, mobile junk, psychedelic and other fringe lunancy of decaying capitalist art we will erect an art which expresses the dignity of working people, into which life is breathed from out of their very struggles; whether for bread, for peace or for socialism; an art which leads to the growth of a working class culture and which, in the widest and most fundamental sense creates a visual and dramatic image of the socialist future, an assertive art of the revolutionary class in society, the producers of all material and cultural values. Fundamental to our aims, therefore, is that of fulfilling a vanguard role in teaching, educating, organising and raising the cultural values of this only revolutionary class, in a developed capitalist society, the proletariat.

Because we are workers alongside the mass of working people as a whole; because we increasingly sell our labour power firstly in order to live but increasingly also in order to create; and because we can expect no philanthropy from capital, for our art reflects the struggle of workers against
capital and is thus persecuted and outlawed – along with all other revolutionary activity, we Socialist Artists must possess our own collective organisation under the direction of the vanguard Marxist-Leninist party, the overall instrument of the future proletarian-socialist revolution, a revolutionary, democratic union of artists with the clear and simple aim:

“Our art must serve revolutionary politics. We place our art unreservedly at the service of the working class.”

Provisional Committee, The League of Socialist Artists;
August 1973.

Source

Workers’ Communist Party of France (PCOF) on the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

pcof-jpg

From the newspaper La Forge
Central Organ of the Workers’ Communist Party of France

The attack against Charlie Hebdo that left many dead and injured is a barbaric act.

We strongly condemn it and our thoughts go to the victims, their families, and the employees of the magazine and we promise them our solidarity.

It is an action with the purpose to create fear and is an attack on the right to free information and expression. As a paper we join efforts to defend its democratic rights, though there has for some time existed an unhealthy environment for the defense and apology of racism, intolerance and a normalization of reactionary ideas. We declare that it must stop the exploitation of religion, whatever it is, to divide and undermine the values of fraternity and tolerance.

We will participate in the rally in Paris at the Republic Square tonight at 17 o’clock, and we call upon our comrades and friends to participate in initiatives that will take place in other cities.

Paris, January 7, 2014
pcof@pcof.net
enavant@club-internet.fr

Source

Video from Hayat TV: 20th Anniversary of the ICMLPO

The following videos are from the Turkish EMEP’s television coverage of the 20th anniversary of the ICMLPO (Unity & Struggle).

Vietnamese Revolutionary Art

This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #53, “Aesthetics and Revolution – Essays and Talks.

Introduction

Western Artists and revolutionaries, are familiar with the socialist realist traditions of the USSR, Albania and of China. They also have a deep affection and respect for revolutionary painting from the Spanish Civil War, and from the South American continent especially from Mexico and Cuba. Curiously, art arising from the heroic struggles of the Vietnamese peoples, is much less well known. This is a shame, since the long war of national liberation, resulted in a plethora of great art.

Ho Chi Minh’s shrewd and insightful leadership of the Vietnamese national bourgeois liberation struggle, built a successful United Front. This was dependent upon the recognition that “many currents” would help move Vietnam into independence. A striking example of this viewpoint, is Ho Chi Minh’s view of Confucius, Jesus and Marx as “close friends”:

“The teachings of Confucius have a strong point, i.e., self-improvement of personal virtue. Jesus’ Bible has a strong point, i.e., noble altruism. Marxism has a strong point, i.e. a dialectical working method. Ton Dat Tien’s teaching has a strong point, i.e.Fe; their policies are suited to the conditions in our country, Did Confucius, Jesus, Marx, and Ton Dat Tien share common points? Yes. They all pursued a way to bring happiness to human beings and benefit to society. If they were all alive today, and if they were grouped together, I believe that they would live together in harmony like close friends. I try to become their pupil.“

Ho Chi Minh 1949. Plaque in Ho Chi Minh Museum, July 2004.

With this “broad church” philosophy, Ho Chi Minh succeeded in welding such a powerful anti-imperialist front. Unsurprisingly even the art in the clearly revolutionary phases of this broad front, also reflects a broad range of styles, and even at times of contents. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the Indochinese dominant French imperialism had already stimulated interest in the French art movements.

This article outlines and illustrates some developments in visual arts over the modern era. We apologise that it cannot be anything more than a very brief introduction.

A short background to the traditional arts, showing their legacy to the modern era, may be helpful.

Ancient Vietnamese Art

Naturally, the art history of the Vietnamese peoples is commensurate with their ancient story. The traditional arts in Vietnam faced the ravages of wars and little other than architectural edifices, and some sculptures and pottery, now exists. This shows the mark of a tension between external influences – Chinese and Indian – and more ‘native’ royalty sponsored arts. Largely it was the Cham dynasty that was heavily influenced by Indian art, and remaining sculptures show remarkable similarity.

Another major cultural import was Buddhism, via India directly, but also via South China. Buddhism has left a long lasting artistic and intellectual legacy in the many temples and pagodas that still survive in virtually every village. All these external influences were absorbed, such that by the 10th –11th centuries, the dominant artistic expressions relied upon Chinese Han traditions.

This absorption can be vividly seen in architecture, both in construction styles, and in intellectual legacy. This is vividly exemplified by the Temple of Literature founded in the 11th century. As the official tour plaque says of this shrine to Confucius, his four disciples and the ten learned ones:

“The Temple of Literature was the biggest centre in the country in feudal times, contributing to the training of thousands of scholars for the nation. It was worthy of being called the First University.”

Plaque, Temple of Literature, Hanoi July 2004.

It should not surprise that this plaque lauds Confucius (551-479 BC — Wade-Giles K’ung-fu-tzu or Pinyin Kongfuzi). Although Confucius is regarded as a reactionary in the current era, his contribution to welding a state in China is not challenged. And above all Ho Chi Minh was a dedicated nationalist, whose first mandate was to recognise important steps in the development of Vietnam into a modern, strong, independent and united nation, bridging the so-called three kys (parts of Vietnam).

The existing legacy that we are aware of from Vietnamese arts rests primarily upon porcelains and ceramics, sculpture, architecture, and folk-art traditions. Of these a large mystical non-realist tradition was dominant, incorporating dragons and mythical beings. But they did nonetheless develop realist themes amidst the myths. So even the depictions of the Buddha show a real human shape and a real human expression [Plate 1]. This version of the Bhudda shows him starving but peaceful in meditation.

Notable in these statues is the covering of the wood, with several layers of lacquer [See below].

Plate 1: Statue of Sakyamuni on A Snow Mountain 1794; Height 137 cm

SakyamuniFrom:
Editor: Cao Trong Thiem, “Bao Tang My Thuat Viet Nam”;
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum; nd; p.43

Given the ordinary peasants’ tendency to reduce all pretensions to an earthy reality, folk art usually took an explicitly realist form. The folk art illustrated life’s vagaries with a number of human motifs, as can be seen in the wood-cut traditions of Dong Ho village in Ha Bac Province [Plate 32]. This tradition was to re-surface with the development of poster art in the national revolutionary period.

Plate 2: Catching Coconuts (paper wood-cut print);
Cao Truong Theim; Ibid; p.51

Catchign Coconuts

Many of these techniques as developed over ancient times, left reservoirs of skills that were to find a new use in an entirely different set of traditions emanating from Western art and from the traditions of Socialist Realism. The ancient arts will not be further discussed here.

We will now focus, on the visual arts over the modern era.

Beginnings of Western Type Painting in Vietnam

Under French colonial domination at the turn of hte 19th – 20th centuries, Indochinese intellectuals were drawn to French and Western art movement. This was fueled by the setting up of hte Indochinese Art Academy by a Frenchman – Victor Tardieu – in 1925.

This fostered new technical skills and vocabulary, shortly to be put to profound uses by thw revolutionary artists in the era 1935-1970.

As the Vietnam Fine Arts Academy says:

“Tardieu rendered great service by laying the foundations for Vietnamese modern Fine Arts.“

Editor: Cao Trong Thiem, “Bao Tang My Thuat Viet Nam”; Vietnam Fine Arts Museum; nd; p.25.

Certainly such a strong Western external art influence was also present in the USSR before the socialist revolution.

It was perhaps somewhat less evident in the Chinese national revolution, or in Albanian art. In China, such influences were transmitted in Shanghai, to artists such as Xu Beihong (1895-1953) who went to the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts in Paris [See Clarke David; Modern Chinese Art’; Hong Kong; 2000; p.18]. And of course Chinese developments in modern art and socialist realism, were spurred on by Lu Xun and his espousal of the wood-cut.

But Western art influence was much more immediately influential in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the earliest tangible expression of this Western influence realism was by artists such as Le Huy Mien [1873-1943; ‘Making comments on literary work”; 1898] [See Plate 3], and Trang Tran Phenh (‘Phagm Ngu Lao’, 1923).

The former depicts scholars debating merits of literary works, a theme not dissimilar from that of the traditional Chinese inspired Vietnamese artists. But the literature being debated now was slowly becoming more likely to do with modern liberation themes, than of poems on the moon.

Plate 3: Le Huy Mien:
‘Making Comments on a Literary Work’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p, 56

HuyMien

While these pioneers utilised the Western medium of oil paints, they restricted their content to local themes, expressed in the highest form of a bourgeois critical realism. By the 1930’s however, the content as well as style, of many painters had become almost identical to the most conventional of the French Impressionist schools such as Renoir. “Little Thuy” (1943) by Tran Van Can (1910-1994) for instance [p.75] [See plate 4], or “Japanese Young Girl” 1942, by Luong Xuan Nhi (1914-) [Plate 5] are clearly overtly influenced by Impressionism.

And this type of content largely came to predominate.

Plate 4: Tran Can Can
‘Little Thuy’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 74

Tran Van Can

Plate 5: Luong Xuan Nhi:
‘Japanese Young Girl’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 77

Luong Xuan Nhi

Residuals of ancient arts were now more found in the mediums used, rather than the contents or subject matter. But if the artists persisted in using the older materials, this had an effect on the subject choice. So artists attracted to old art forms such as painting on silks, rendered beautiful images of life such as Nguyen Phan Chanh’s [1892-1984] “Going to the Rice Fields” (1937) [See plate 6].

Plate 6: Nguyen Phan Chanh:
‘Going to the Rice Fields’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 58

RiceFields

With the later revolutionary influences, Nguyen Phan Chanh, persisted in this art form, making such vivid depictions of real life as “Team of Rattan Weavers” (1960) [See plate 7] and “A Good Harvest Meal” (1960) [p. 59].

Plate 7: Nguyen Phan Chanh:
‘Going to the Rice Fields’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 58

RattanWeavers

This tradition lasted long into the revolutionary period as the dates show. It also was linked to another tradition, that of wood-cuts which spawned in the revolutionary era, the revolutionary propagandist prints.

Perhaps a specialty of Vietnamese traditional arts was however lacquer painting.
As noted above, statuary and sculpture was often coated in a several layers of lacquer. This is a resin extracted from cuts on the bark of a common Vietnamese tree called ca y son (La: Rhus succedanea), which has is collected in total darkness lest it becomes itself dark (Catherine Noppe & Jean Francois Hubert ‘Art of Vietnam’; New York; 2003). When applied by the artist, it gives a special luster to the painted material – usually a wood – that acts as a vivid light. This light can be burnished with various pigments, into several different colours according to the pigment used, but the most common are golds, reds and greens. Each layer needs sanding down, before a new layer can be added, meaning considerable labour. The quality of lacquer derives from the number of coats, the manner in which the patterns can shine out and the expertise of sanding of the surface, which allows under layers to appear as a bas- relief.
An early exponent of the fusion of traditional form with more modern content was Nguyen Gia Tria (1908-1993).

His screen “In the Garden”, consists of 8 panels that show on one side a profusion of stylised banana and palm leaves. The obverse, consistent with the genre of French painting influences discussed, has a series of pretty, languid women redolent of Impressionist male fantasies. It is undoubtedly striking, but remains a purely decorative piece. Perhaps his ‘Clumps of bamboo in the countryside (1939) shows him at both his technical and content best, showing the florid jungle surrounding peasant on a boat passage [Plate 8].

Plate 8: Nguyen Gia Tria:
‘Clumps of Bamboo in the Countryside’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 86

Nguyen Gia Tri

That Nguyen Gia Tria wished to be linked to a more nationalist stream is evident since he professed that he:

“wished to drop his art studies as he felt all his teachers should be Viertnamese. Tardiese persuaded him to stay”;
Noppe & Hubert Ibid; p. 208.

Artistic Currents during the anti-imperialist struggles

It was onto this background, that the experiences of the anti-colonial liberation struggle led a new generation of artists into uncharted areas. Influenced by a stream of aesthetic thought from bourgeois liberalism through to socialist realism, they were largely solidly realist. Many of the artists of the Fine Arts Academy decamped, and taught at “Jungle Schools”:

“The first wave of national opposition against the French rule between 1946 and 1954 attracted a good number of Hanoi Fine Arts graduates who went and taught at the “Jungle School” in Viet Bac. . A natural consequence of the shutdown in the wake of the Japanese crackdown on March 31 1954. Out in the jungle you could still sense the war, but you also felt the power of nature and the cultural wealth of ethnic minorities.”
Noppe & Hubert Ibid; p.212-3

Impressively stirring content was drawn from the Indochinese liberation struggles, and often was grafted onto traditional forms, primarily of lacquer.
The results are far from simple propagandist art.

Marxist-Leninist aesthetics point out that realist content material, is the most effective art to stir the masses.

Too little attention has been paid to the differences between good realist art, and simple propaganda. Marxist-Leninists have long held that the best art both moves people, but is not ‘tendentious’, in the words of Engels. Alliance has empasised the distinction between “propagandist art”, “state sponsored art”, and the best of socialist art (Memorial to Bill Bland – see Table of Contents Alliance 53).

Much of the best of the art stemming from the Vietnamese national liberation struggle is by any standard, a high art.

Clearly tensions of style remained, and a degree of abstractionism was not uncommon, with some abstract paintings throughout the revolutionary era.
But there is little doubt that the predominant weight of paintings over the period from 1945 to the 1980’s, was realist in content.

Naturally the turns of the long war led to their own effects on the artistic climate. Hence the victory of the national liberation struggle at Dien Ben Phu decisively turned mere pastiches of French impressionists into an expression of un-welcome and hostile anti-patriotism.

Sections of the intelligentsia and artists were unwilling to contemplate any further struggle, and any possible move into socialism; and became disillusioned.
As a hostile art history by Noppe and Hubert puts it, the battle of Dien Bien Phu marked a turning point:. It was here that the Vietnamese decisively defeated French imperialism, led by General Giap and Ho Chi Minh. Some artists chose Western abstractionism at this stage:

“Yet if artists (in the Jungle Academy –ed) were first and foremost observers, they were also fighters in an unequal struggle. Within a handful of years patriotic fervour gave way to disenchantment. Bui Xuan Phai was among the first who went back to the city in 1952”.
Noppe & Hubert; Ibid; p. 212.

“A radical change of situation came with the crushing defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954… From then on socialist realism became an imperative.. painters who had joined independent fighters from 1946 and depicted courageous and unpretentious freedom fighters enjoyed the full support of the rural population, suddenly found them gagged by socialist realism only a decade later. Such as Bui Xuan Phoi, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Sang, and Nguyen Tu Nghien”.
Noppe & Hubert Ibid; p. 113.

It is not surprising that an Art Forum was established that expressed the aspirations of national liberation, and expected its’ artists to assist in this expression.

It is equally un-surprising that the overt failure of the revolution to move to the socialist path, or the second stage of the Leninist revolution, would lead to the firm and ever stronger enthronement of capital. This was established openly by the so-called Doi-Moi reforms (See Alliance 27: On Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Revisionism – at http://ml-review.ca/aml/China/ALLIANCE27HOCHIMINH.htm).

These developments led to a resurgence of abstractionism and vague, moody Vietnamese beautiful ladies in art:

“The Art forum set up headed by Thai Ba Van set the baseline for modern art.. and helped stifle artistic expression, although doi-moi reforms introduced a certain amount of leeway of 1985… All Vietnamese artists felt the burden of censorship”.
Noppe & Hubert; Ibid; p. 219.

Examples of Works in the National Liberation Struggle

To see the currents at play, we should examine the paintings over this period.

In the make-over of traditional forms, some of the lacquer work is very striking. See for example “Recalling One Afternoon in Tay Bac” 1922, by Phan Ke An (b 1923). [Plate 9] see p.103.

Beautiful sun burnished green mountains form a background to a small troop of soldiers crossing a ridge. Here both content and form are perfectly matched. The ‘everyday’ aspect of a troop of soldiers is part of the scenery.

Plate 9: Phan Ke An:
‘Recalling One Fine afternoon in Tay Bac’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 103

PhanKeAn

In “Ham Rong Bridge”(1976) by Tran Oanh (b.1937) [Plate 10], workers are shown against an impressive background of the river in brilliant reds and golds.

Plate 10: Tranh Oanh
‘Ham Rong Bridge’;
Unpublished Source.

TranOanh

There is little doubt that the use of such heavy reds in this late painting, is an allegory for socialism. This use of the red and gold lacquer is made even more explicit in such paintings as the large and impressive 4 panels of the “The Nghe Tinh Soviet” of 1958 by six painters led by Nguyen Duc Nung [Plate 11].

Plate 11: Nguyen Dic Nung, Tran Dinh Tho, Pham Van Don, Nguyen Van Ty, Huynh Van Thuan, Nguyen Sy Ngoc:
“Soviet in the Provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh”
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p.109

NgheAnSoviet

Even some of the abstractionist elements during this period, are sometimes very powerful. Such as for example “From Darkness (1982) by Le Quoc Loc (1918-1987) [Plate 12] (p.102). Surrounding blocks of black and gold shapes of lacquer, depict houses in the night. In one off-centre house, placed high on the wood surface, a gold and red light brightly lights a central room. The red light is the hammer and sickle on one flag, with a second flag composed of a gold five-pointed star on a red background. In front of them are black silhouettes of men and women workers saluting the flag.

Plate 12: Le Quoc Loc
“From Darkness” ;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p.109

LeQuocLoc

Another impressive lacquer painting, that takes as its content material honest working labour, is that by Nguyen Khang (1912-1988) of fishermen, entailed “Fishing in the Moonlight” (1943). (Plate 13). This has a dense black background, against which the somber, hard working fishermen drift in sampans above a sea of multi-coloured fish. Accentuating the three dimensional effect, two fisherwomen standing in the shallows have their arms half visible above and half below the surface of the water. This is especially interesting, in that traditional lacquer and Chinese derived paintings, usually deny any perspective.

Plate 13:
Nguyen Khang; “Fishing in the Moonlight”;
Cao Trong Thiem; Ibid; p. 60

NguyenKhang

This type of artistic tradition continued well into the 1980’s. Nguyen Khang (1912-1989), who we met above, in 1960 did the 3 panel painting “Troops Marching Across a Stream”, in the same impressive lacquer tradition as he had used in 1943 [Plate 14]. At an initial look, all one sees is a dense jungle with groves of bamboo and green profusions. Then one sees that the jungle truly is alive, that the Viet Cong are moving silently across it and fording a stream.

Plate 14: Nguyen Khang; “Troops Marching Across a Stream”;
Unpublished Source

NguyenKhang2

It should not be thought that the materials were confined to lacquer. Oil was also very commonly used. For instance, depicting the road that Vietnam had come through, Huynh Van Gah (1922-1987) showed a harrowing line of Vietnamese refugee prisoners who are being foot-marched by French colonial guards [Plate 15].

Plate 15: Hyunh Van Gah
‘Prisoners’;
Unpublished Source

VanGah

In contrast Nguyen Trong Kiem (1930-1991) composed a haunting allegory of the future – “When a Child was Born” (1960); [Plate 16]. This large painting depicts a newborn child in the arms of its mother, with an army father standing close. All around are the people, evidently poor, against a background of a bombed out city. The meaning is clear, that the new state will provide a new society.

Plate 16: Nguyen Trong Kiem
‘When a Child Was Born’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 133

Kiem

While all these examples of art vary in their degree of “tendentiousness”, little that we have illustrated can be really termed hagiographic. That is not to say that there are a considerable number of images of Ho Chi Minh. Many of these are of Ho in ordinary activities, or in the guerrilla camps, of “Uncle Ho on a Mission in Viet Bac” by Duong Bich Lien (1980) [Plate 17].

Plate 17: Duong Bich Lien;
‘Uncle Ho On a Mission in Viet Bac’;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p. 124

DuongBichLien

While these images certainly exist, the predominant feel obtained from the paintings exhibited in the Vietnam Museum of Arts is of a far broader and higher art activity than can be classified as ‘propaganda’ art or hagiographic art. Rather impressive technical and visually appealing pictures of real and ordinary people are far more predominant.

War Themes

Not even a simple overview as this, of the artistic legacy of modern Vietnam should ignore the war themes. These are in such abundance, that for instance at the War Museum Hanoi, many are not even given the honour of a label illustrating the title or the artist. A selection of these can be found relatively easily, in a publication from the British Musuem of late war drawings, in “Vietnam – Behind the Lines – Images from the War 1965-1975”; Jessica Harrison-Hall; London 2002.

This article will not discuss poster art in any detail. But an interesting historical comparison of the wood cut in Plate 3, shows again how the modern Vietnamese artist harked back to her/his heritage at a number of points. The wood cuts continue the famous Da Hong village traditions. They both depict episodes from earlier wars of national liberation, in particular those against the Chinese Han dynasty who occupied Vietnam for many years.

Plate 17: Pham Van Don; Plate 18: Hoang Tram; ‘Three Generations’; Cao Trong Thiem Ibid p.121;
Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p.98

PhamVanDonHoangTram

The sheer plethora of art produced regarding the war cannot be quickly précised in a short article, and these examples from the War Museum should suffice. But three pictures from the Fine Arts Museum are worth showing with a little discussion also. So these again revert to the fine arts tradition of using lacquer, and again do so in an ingenious manner.

Le Tri Duong (1949) painted “Breaking Through a Key Point” showing a tank with its barrel aiming at the skies, bursting through a blockade onto a red road, being hailed by 4 guerillas – three women and a man. The red lacquered road and the gold lacquered background are again symbolic. [Plate 19].

Plate 19:
Le Tri Duong; “Breaking Through a Key Point
Cao Trong Thiem; p.170.

LeTriDung

Hyunh Van Gah, who we met above, in “Heat and Gun” shows an impressive confrontation between a phalanx of black-pajama-ed women and one old man and a US marine.

Plate 20: Hyunh Van Gah; “Heart & Gun”:

Cao Trong Thiem Ibid p.123;

HuynhVanGam

In ‘Fire Coordination’, (1974) Le Huy Toan (born 1930) painted in 1974, shows a bleak and frightening landscape composed of bomb craters and shrapnel cascades into the sky, while a single young girl confronts a series of tanks approaching her.

Plate 21:
Le Huy Toan; “Fire Coordination’; Cao Trong Thiem Ibid; p.136

NguyenHuyToan

Aftermath of Doi Moi – Faceless Women and Western Reproductions

While the national liberation struggle was victorious, it was never moved beyond that to the socialist phase. The “Chinese” wall identified by Lenin between the two revolutions – firstly the national democratic liberation, and secondly the socialist revolution – was never breached in Vietnam. That Ho Chi Minh was an inspiring and great leader of the Vietnamese peoples, is beyond doubt. However his legacy is largely that of a great national liberation ideologist.

After Ho Chi Minh’s death, and the final liberation of the South of Vietnam, the state erected in Vietnam was controlled by the Vietnamese national bourgeoisie. However within a relatively short space of time, the state was once more marked by an enormous influx of foreign capital. The policy of “Doi Moi” made this quite official. That this influx of foreign capital, was both unlimited, and not without burdens on the Vietnamese people is evident. Unsurprisingly USA capital is not very high on the score sheet, being much lower than Singaporean, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese capital. Irrespective of which capital inflow is dominant, the net result has been the open and unequivocal development of capitalism in an acknowledged “open market” economy. The result on art has been frankly paralleled. Pictures of languid Vietnamese women, often faceless and often dressed (if not un-dressed) in the now ‘traditional’ white —, abound. Interestingly the market place is full of the heirs of the technically proficient artists of the earlier period. They are now largely reduced to selling the most elaborate reproductions of any Western artist that takes your fancy. From Dali to Picasso to Renoir to Van Goh – all are perfectly reproduced in oils and available at a fraction of what it might cost in the West, were it possible to get such.

Conclusions

Naturally, there are far more pressing concerns for the Vietnamese peoples than their art history.

Many still live in an astounding poverty.

Despite national liberation, life is hard for the Vietnamese peasants, numbering still about 75% of the population. Official figures for unemployment are around 7-10%. Degrees of disparity between rich and poor are growing rapidly, as even officials of the World Bank have recognised, citing growing ginni coefficients for Vietnam.

Vietnam’s art history however, is another affirmation of the Marxist aesthetic viewpoint, that art reflects the society in which it develops. We believe it also shows that the socialist realist tradition – as it was embraced by the Vietnamese liberation artists – is much deeper than simple hagiography. At its’ best, and why should an artist not strive for her or his best? – it is an affirmation of life, and a philosophic reflection upon all of life.

Source

Was Stalin’s View on Art Different from that of Marx and Engels?

This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #53, “Aesthetics and Revolution – Essays and Talks.”

A talk given to commemorate Bill Bland at Conway Hall, London, September 2001

Preamble

This is not the occasion to dwell on Bill’s enormous contributions to the Marxist-Leninist movement in both theory and practice. That will be history to do. This evening, is to celebrate Bill as a man.

It is well known that he was passionate about the arts, and that he took very seriously, Stalin’s dictum that “art was the engineer of the human soul”. I thought it fitting therefore, to emulate Bill’s approach when answering difficult questions surrounding Stalin. It is even more fitting to attempt this upon a subject he was passionate about.

I regret that this was not done by Bill himself, for several reasons. But one of these is that to answer the question posed, will be impossible for me to do as well as Bill would have done.

Introduction

Critics and pundits continue to teach incessantly how ‘bad’ art was in Stalin’s lifetime in the Soviet Union. It is commonly asserted that Stalin’s view of art was only for self-glorification or for propaganda.

For example, the popular art historian, Robert Hughes writes this in “Time” in 1994: [Italics-Editor’s emphasis]:

“Throughout his rule, Stalin had sponsored a form of state art officially known as Socialist Realism. Geared to a naive, not to say brutish, mass public barely literate in artistic matters, Soviet Socialist Realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience – though Capitalist Realism, the never-never land of desire created by American advertising, runs it a close second…As a young man Stalin had been snubbed by the Russian intellectual elite. His revenge was to grind their faces in the ice of miracle, mystery and authority, to make culture into a form of ventriloquism from on high. Socialist Realism was a religious art celebrating the transcendent power of communist ideology, the impending heaven of world socialism and the godlike benignity of its father, Lenin’s successor, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, the man of steel. And like the traditional icons of Christ and the saints it replaced, the stuff was omnipresent. No square or schoolroom in Russia lacked its image of Stalin pointing to the future…

What strikes a modern non-Russian viewer most is Socialist Realism’s unabashed fantasy. Realism in Stalinist terms did not mean painting things as they were or even as they might be: the inevitability of Socialist progress erased that conditional “might,” along with the gap between present and future.

That which will be already is, under the world-sustaining gaze of Comrade Stalin. Ideology ascribed to Stalin the actual role of God, the creation of reality itself…

One sees how Socialist Realism transcends history, with Stalin (who in 1917 was the editor of Pravda but had no role in planning the October Revolution) being painted into the very heart of the first Bolshevik conclaves cheek by jowl with Lenin. One sees Stalin protecting the motherland from the Kremlin ramparts, towering over generals or members of the Politburo who in biological life were considerably taller than he. There he is conducting the defense of Stalingrad (though in fact he prudently avoided going anywhere near a battle), encouraging collective farmers and listening to Maxim Gorky read.

But most of all he is busy being himself: God. Fyodor Shurpin’s Morning of Our Motherland, 1946-48, is a portrait of Stalin in the literal form of the Pantocrator, contemplating a new world he has brought into being. He wears a white coat of radiant purity and is bathed in the light of an early spring morning. Behind him stretch the green pastures of a transfigured Russia, Poussin (as it were) with tractors and electricity pylons, and shy plumes of smoke rising to greet the socialist dawn from far-off factories.”

“Icons Of Stalinism Soviet Socialist Realism Portrayed A Godlike Maximum Leader Reigning Over A Communist Heaven” By Robert Hughes. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/archive/1994/940124/940124.art.html

But Stalin saw Art as being: “the engineer of the human soul.” But then could Stalin not distinguish between propaganda and art? Was Stalin only interested in Art for the purpose of his own glorification?

This would be quite inconsistent with what we know of Stalin’s own views, which were first highlighted by Bill Bland. Stalin detested the Cult of Personality and recognised that it was being used by enemies to attack him (See for example, “Stalin Myths & Realities”; at http://ml-review.ca/aml/STALIN-TXT/WBBSTALINMYTHSPARIS1999.html).

Nonetheless, the prevalent view is that Stalin was a vain-glorious dictator – in the arts as well as all other spheres of life. It is no wonder that any hint of alternative viewpoint is suppressed. So for example the influential New York Review of Books (NYRB), published Isiah Berlin’s article, that was originally written in the 1930’s for the British secret service on the state of arts under Stalin.

Berlin’s article is very convenient for conventional wisdom in that it is generally vituperative of the USSR. But the article applauded in general, the results of the state policies on art. This was most inconvenient for the NYRB. To retain even a tiny fragment that did support the USSR arts policy was anathema. Which fragment was correspondingly cut. This read:

“On the other side it must be said that the childlike eagerness and enthusiasm of Soviet readers and Soviet theatrical audiences is probably without parallel in the world. The existence of State-subsidised theatres and opera, as well as of regional publishing houses, throughout the Soviet Union is not merely a part of a bureaucratic plan, but responds to a very genuine and insufficiently satisfied popular demand. “

Isiah Berlin: ‘The Arts in Russia under Stalin’ ; [Passage Omitted From the New York Review of Books, 19 October 2000, p. 60] at: http://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/berlin/vl/published_works/artscut.htm

Despite the epithet “childlike” – this perspective of a Soviet arts policy that stemmed from and spoke to the masses – was too uncomfortable for the NYRB.

Thus the general view is propagated, that in contrast to Marx and Engels, Stalin was a ‘boor’ – too uncivilized and uninterested to see beyond a propagandist art that glorified him. It is generally argued even by bourgeois critics, that Marx and Engels were men of taste who would not have inflicted “Socialist Realism” on the world. Of course it is well known how erudite Marx and Engels were, and this has been extensively catalogued (See SS Prawer: “Karl marx and World Literature”; Oxford 1978).

Even the bourgeoisie now acknowledge this.

But Marx and Engels did not live in an era when it was possible to build a Socialist state. For that reason, and for the reason that they are now long dead, they are ‘spared’ too much abuse, while more recent enemies of the bourgeoisie like Stalin who could build socialism, are vituperated.

We will ask tonight:

“How far apart were Marx and Engels from Stalin, concerning their views on the arts?”

In general the views of Stalin on the arts have been represented well by Zhdanov in his lectures and writings on art. [See Bland’s own article on “Stalin and the Arts” in this issue of Alliance 53 [At http://ml-review.ca/aml/AllianceIssues/A2004/STALINART.html].

This is not here, an examination of the Ultra-leftist deviations in the arts such as Proletkult [See Bland cited before & Alliance 7 at http://ml-review.ca/aml/AllianceIssues/ALLIANCE7COMMUNISTACADEMY.html] and AKhRR (The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia)

Instead, I propose here to examine primarily, whether Stalin’s views substantially varied from those of Marx and Engels.

We will examine FIVE specific questions:

1) How did Marx and Engels view the inter-relationship of the mode of production & society to art ?

2) What did Marx and Engels view as making for ‘good art’?

3) How did Marx and Engels view art that frankly proclaimed the workers cause?

4) What were the favourite pictures of Marx, Engels and Stalin?

5) Was there good art produced in the USSR up to 1953?

State Art, Propaganda and Caricature

But first we should define certain recurrent artistic terms. 

When one sees pictures like this one by Freidin and entitled “Glory To Stalin”; it does appear to be celebrating a state event in the USSR. This could be thought of as being propaganda because it depicts Stalin favourably.

glory2stalin50GFreidin

Or at the very least, it may be doubted whether this is “great art.”

But it is in fact a form of art well recognised in every society. It is what we will here call, an “Art of State”; one that helps to form the “myths” and “self-images” of a state.

Such imagery and icons are necessary to each and every state, and indeed ubiquitous in every state.

It would be quite wrong to even suggest that the USSR was unique in having such art.

For instance, this painting, by  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, American, (1816-1868) is entitled “George Washington Crossing the Delaware”, 1851 (378.5 x 647.7 cm ,  is in the  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Emanuel_Leutze_(American,_Schwäbisch_Gmünd_1816–1868_Washington,_D.C.)_-_Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_-_Google_Art_Project

It is a central iconic image that depicts George Washington’s heroic victories over the English colonists in the American War of Independence.

Whether Washington in these battles actually struck such poses or was quite as well dressed and clean is immaterial to the purpose of the artist.

It is meant to focus a nation’s gaze on one of its formers and heroes.

Copley

Similarly, the painting in the Tate Gallery Of  “The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781” by John Singleton Copley (1783) was iconic for its time, in England.

It showed a battle between English and French troop in Jersy (the Channel Islands) in a conflict sparked by the American Revolutionary Wars. Peirson’s death for the British flag was revenged by his personal manservant – whose name is not honoured in the title fo the painting.

Or even more well known, is the statue of Boadicea on the banks of the Thames just below the Houses of Parliament.

Boadicea

Propaganda art is at a different level from “State Art” in our view, and is more clearly designed for a day to day persuasion. Propaganda art, in general, carries a negative overtone. However, such art may be both very well done and may serve an extremely useful function. Such is the case for the posters seen here, from the USSR.

Much of the poster art from the USSR, is nowadays recognised as being both technically, but artistically as well, very fine, and is collected for huge amounts of money.

SaveBooks1919Kupreyanov

The caption is “Save Books”; by Kupreyanov

MayakovskyNoBureacracy1921

The caption is “Anti-bureaucracy” by Mayakovsky

DimitriMoorHelp1921

The caption is “Help!” (During the imperislist blockade); by Dimitri Moor.

Caricature should be distinguished from propaganda, and perhaps its’ hallmark is that of an extreme exaggeration of features.

A master of this was Honore Daumier, who here, lampooned the King of France as never-endingly receiving into his vast mouth the people’s wealth:

GargantuaDaumier1808

It is quite true that some posters may be less useful, and sub-serve a true ‘propagandist’ purpose. Such for example are the numerous images of J.V.Stalin, and of V.I.Lenin in these:

Bizukhov’s “Stalin and the Railway”

BizukovStalinRail1932

“Lenin and Stalin”; Anonymous, 1948

LeninStalinAnon1948

But, it should be again reiterated that Stalin is clearly on record as abhorring and trying to prevent the Cult of Personality.

I strongly doubt postes such as these were produced at the behest of Stalin, and his stated preferences in art (See below) are a strong indication of this.

But stronger evidence, comes from the history of the USSR where Stalin at many points attempted to obstruct a Cult of the Personality arising. 

Summary:
I have argued that all States have an ‘official’ art that serves as a vehicle to reinforce national images.

This was not unique to the USSR.

I have also argued that propaganda and caricature can both be valuable media for different progressive purposes.

(1) The Views of Marx and Engels on Art in Relation to Society

The Inter-relation of Art and the Society in which it is produced

As all who are interested in art will know, the origins of art lie very early on in man’s history:

“Anatomically modern humans had existed for at least the previous 50,000 years, but 50,000 years ago there appear the first signs of art, of versified tools for specific functions, and other clues to enhanced culture.”;

Johnson D & Edgar B: “From Lucy to Language”; New York; 1996; p. 52; .

“If art is an attempt to imitate nature, our Upper Paleolithic ancestors were master artists. It is impossible to visit a cave like Lascaux in south western France or Altamira in Northern Spain and not be moved by the images of horses, bison, deer, and other prehistoric animals. Art painted on the ancient cave walls. Reaching across eons of time, these lifelike yet hauntingly impressionistic paintings immediately connect us with the artists who rendered their world on cave walls nearly 20,000 years ago. When the painted cave of Altamira first came to the attention of researchers, in 1880, the immediate reaction was that such sophisticated and well-executed paintings could not have been made by prehistoric people.”

Johnson D & Edgar B: “From Lucy to Language”; New York; 1996; p. 53.

What more can connect ancient cave art than the common themes of food animals and hunting?

Lascaux

Early discoveries of such cave paintings were initially controversial. Pundits instantly dismissed them as “too sophisticated” to have been drawn by primitive men and women. But it is interesting that Engels did not share the general skepticism of his age, and he also accurately located the first pieces of art as being a very early part of  mankind’s history.

“By the combined functioning of hand, speech organs and brain, not only in each individual but also in society, men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set themselves, and achieve, higher and higher aims. The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified. Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle raising; then came spinning, weaving, metalworking, pottery and navigation. Along with trade and industry, art and science finally appeared. Tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind — religion.”

‘The Part Played By Labour In The Transition From Ape To Man’ By Frederick Engels;
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876hand/index.htm

Elsewhere Engels relates that the essential development needed to enable the advent of Art, was that the hand became free of a need for locomotion:

“At first, therefore, the operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man can only have been very simple ones. The lowest savages, even those in whom presumably a regression to a more animal-like condition with a simultaneous physical degeneration occurred, are nevertheless far superior to these transitional beings. Before the first flint was fashioned into a knife by the human hand, a period of time must have elapsed in comparison with which the historical period known to us appears insignificant. But the decisive step was taken: the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever newer skills, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was transmitted and increased from generation to generation.

Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only through labour, through constant adaptation to new operations, through inheritance of the special development thus acquired of muscles, ligaments and, over longer periods of time, bones as well, and by the ever renewed use of this inherited refinement in new, increasingly complicated operations, has the human hand attained that high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the paintings of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini. “

Frederick Engels: “The Part Played By Labour In The Transition From Ape To Man”;
in “Dialectics of Nature”: ; http://www.marx2mao.org//M&E/PPL76.html

Yet, if the physical anatomy of hands that produce art have not substantially changed over historical time, art certainly has.  

What explains the emergence of paintings of a Raphael from the anatomically similar hands that created the art of the Lascaux Paleolithic hand?

What makes the art of one historical period different from that of another period? Marx and Engels recognised that it was the “relations of production.

These will form the “economic structure of society”; which in turn explains all social life – “the social, political and intellectual life-process in general.” When the underlying economic conditions changes, the whole of society undergoes changes. But Marx nonetheless points out that in “the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic, in short, ideological, forms” – the relation is not as exact as in the “material transformation of the economic conditions of production.” This early and central passage from Marx’s writings is as follows:

“In the social production of their existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — what is merely a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within the framework of which they have hitherto operated. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. At that point an era of social revolution begins. With the change in the economic foundation the whole immense superstructure is more slowly or more rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic, in short, ideological, forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such an epoch of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Karl Marx: “Preface And Introduction To A Contribution To The Critique Of Political Economy”; 1844;  
http://www.marx2mao.org//M&E/PI.html
(p3-4)

In so far as the artistic object itself goes (object d’art)  Marx identifies this product as resulting from a specific form of production, centred on “beauty” and its’ appreciation. But this form of production cannot be analysed separately from analyses of a more general production. In early [‘original’] production, the overall state of the finished product is ‘primitively crude’. However, artistic production is part of the overall production in a society.

And its production itself creates a “public with artistic taste” :

“So production creates the consumer.  

3) Production not only provides the material for a need, but it also provides a need for the material. When consumption emerges from its initial natural crudity and immediacy — and its remaining in that state would itself be the result of production being stuck in a state of natural crudity — it itself is mediated as an urge by the object. The need it feels for the object is created by perception of the latter. Like every other product an objet d’art creates a public with artistic taste and a capacity to enjoy beauty. Production accordingly produces not only an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.”

Karl Marx: “A Contribution To The Critique Of Political Economy”; Appendix I ; I. Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange (Circulation). http://www.marx2mao.org//M&E/PI.html (pages 20, 21).

Moreover, Marx points out that in the era of capital, even art takes place within a production work place in cooperation between a small group of workers who have divided up their labour:

“Sancho … thinks that “no one can compose your music for you, complete the sketches for your paintings. No one can do Raphael’s works for him.” Sancho could surely have known, however, that it was not Mozart himself, but someone else who composed the greater part of Mozart’s Requiem and finished it,”‘ and that Raphael himself completed “only an insignificant part of his own frescoes.

[Sancho].. imagines that the so-called “organisers of labour” wanted to organise the entire activity of each individual, and yet it is precisely they who distinguish between directly productive labour, which has to be organised, and labour which is not directly productive. In regard to the latter, however, it was not their view, as Sancho imagines, that each should do the work of Raphael, but that anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance. Sancho imagines that Raphael produced his pictures independently of the division of labour that existed in Rome at the time. If he were to compare Raphael with Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, he would see how greatly Raphael’s works of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice. Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organisation of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.”

The German Ideology. The Leipzig Council. III. Saint Max 393

Two related matters are often raised as a general criticism of these notions as they are applied to art:  

Firstly is the relationship between the economic times and the art produced an absolute relationship?

Engels made clear that anyone who insisted that “the economic factor is the only determining” factor for any particular aspect of life, was not a Marxist. The subtleties of many other factors would often intervene in an “endless host of accidents,” to make a mechanical and simple equation linking economics to each manifestation of real life – silly. Nonetheless, Engels reiterates that economics is the “ultimately determining factor”:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms that expression into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure-political forms of the class struggle and its results, such as constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc, juridical forms, and especially the reflections of all these real struggles in the brains of the participants, political legal, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas-also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent and neglect it) the economic movement is finally bound to assert itself. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier that the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.”

Engels to Joseph Bloch; September 21-22, 1980. Marx and Engels; in Collected Works; 

In addition to this, Marx points out that there is an “unequal development” in both material production and in art. Marx however points out that even in spite of this “unevenness,” there are material and rational explanations  – provided the subject is explored in enough detail. He takes as an example the case of ancient Greek art – that could only arise upon the basis of a Greek mythology. Yet the level of production in Greece a that time was not as high as the “peak” of Greek art might otherwise suggest: 

6. The unequal development of material production and, eg that of art. The concept of progress is on the whole not to be understood in an abstract form. Modern art etc. This disproportion is not as important and difficult to grasp as within concrete social relations e.g. in education. Relations of the United Sates to Europe. However , the really difficult point to be discussed here is how the relations of production as legal relations take part in this uneven development. For example the relation of Roman civil law (this applies in smaller measure to criminal and constitutional law) to modern production. …..

As regards art it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of the its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared with modern [nations], or else Shakespeare. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g. the epos, can no longer be produced in other epoch making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important creations within the compass of art are only possible at an early stage in the development of art. If this is the case with regard to certain branches of art within the sphere of art itself, it is not so remarkable that this should also be the case with regard to the entire sphere of art and its relation to the general development of society. The difficulty lies only in the general formulation of these contradiction. As soon as they are reduced to specific questions, they are already explained.

Let us take for example the relation of Greek art, and that of Shakespeare, to the present time. We know that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but also its basis. Is the conception of nature and of socials relations, which underlies Greek imagination and therefore Greek [art] possible when there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and electric telegraphs? What is a Vulcan compared with Roberts & Co; Jupiter compared with the lightning conductor, and Hermes compared with the Credit Mobilier? All mythology subdues, controls and fashions the forces of nature in the imagination and through imagination; it disappears therefore when real control over those forces is established… Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, in other words that natural and socials phenomenon are already assimilated in an unintentionally artistic manner by the imagination of the people… Egyptian mythology could never become the basis of or give rise to Greek art… Is Achilles possible when powder and shot have been invented? And is the Iliad possible at all when the printing press and even printing machines exist?”

Marx “Introduction” to Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58; in “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” [“The Grundrisse”]; in Collected Works; Volume 28; Moscow; 1986 p.46-47

Secondly, why does art of an earlier era resonate with us?

After all, if art is “of its’ time” – of what consequence should it be to humans many generations later? Marx also addresses this problem, in the same Introduction to Political Economy cited above, where he so memorably compares Hermes with the Credit Mobilier:

“But the difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that still five us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal. An adult cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does the naiveté of the child not give him pleasure, and does he not himself endeavour to reproduce the child’s veracity on a higher level? Does not the child in every epoch represent the character of the period in its natural veracity? Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm because it is stage that will never recur? There are rude children and precious children. Many of the ancient peoples belong to this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the immature stage of the society in which it originated. On the contrary it charm is a consequence of this and is inseparably linked with the fact that the immature socials conditions which gave rise, and which alone could give rise, to this art cannot recur.”

Marx “Introduction” to Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58; in “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”; [“The Grundrisse”] in Collected Works. volume 28; Ibid; p. 47-48.

Neither Stalin nor Lenin devoted too much time to a fully integrated view of art and art history. They had to build socialism. Lenin confessed to Anatol Lunarchasky that art was fascinating but that it would take a lifetime to sort out the innumerable problems posed in its history, but that he would have liked to do so.

Even so, it is very easy to demonstrate that Stalin agrees with these fundamental elements of the Marxist world view.

These views expressed summarise the general analysis known as Historical Materialism. Stalin wrote “Dialectical and Historical Materialism,” that forms a chapter in the famous “History of the CPSU(B).” This piece continues to be excoriated by many who see it as “reductionism” and an “over-simplification” of Marx and Engels. Marxist-Leninists however accept that it is a very cogent and clear explanation of Marx’s views:

“Hence, the source of formation of the spiritual life of society, the origin of social ideas, social theories, political views and political institutions, should not be sought for in the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves, but in the conditions of the material life of society, in social being, of which these ideas, theories, views, etc., are the reflection. Hence, if in different periods of the history of society different social ideas, theories, views and political institutions are to be observed; if under the slave system we encounter certain social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, under feudalism others, and under capitalism others still, this is not to be explained by the “nature,” the “properties” of the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves but by the different conditions of the material life of society at different periods of social development.

Whatever is the being of a society, whatever are the conditions of material life of a society, such are the ideas, theories, political views and political institutions of that society. In this connection, Marx says: 

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 269.)”

J. V. Stalin: “Dialectical And Historical Materialism”: September 1938; In “History of the CPSU(B)”; Moscow 1939; p.115; Or in “Problems of Leninism”; Moscow; 1954; p.725. OR at: http://www.marx2mao.org//Stalin/DHM38.html

If this general postulate of a link between modes of societal production and thought is true, are there at least some examples in art, that they specified? Fortunately as already pointed out in the fragments of Marx and Engels, there are, and we will point out some further examples.

SUMMARY: Marx, Engels and Stalin believed that the mode of production determined human consciousness. This final determinant was qualified by a complex interaction with society, but nonetheless was the starting point for an evaluation of changes in society. This determinant even determined human appreciation of “beauty.”

(2) Did Marx and Engels give us Clues as to what makes for “Good Art?”

Fortunately for us, despite the lack of any single unifying statement, both Marx and Engels were so interested in art that they left many useful analyses on art. At least some of their views are able to be condensed into the statements below. 

(i) Art must be “true” to life: The depiction artistically, of truth must be a complete one – Tomorrow’s world as well as today’s.

Art should express not only what is an apparent and obvious truth now, but also what is a latent and developing truth. This may then take a stance that projects from the world of today into the world of tomorrow.

Not only should the truth be given in all its’ aspects, but in addition true events should be presented so that it can be clear why they have become a reality. These aspects can be seen in the letter (extant only in a draft form now) that Engels sent to Margaret Harkness whose novel “City Girl”  had been sent to me:

“[Draft] [London, beginning of April 1888]  
Dear Miss Harkness, 

I thank you very much for sending me your City Girl. through Messrs. Vizetelly. I have read it with the greatest pleasure and avidity. It is indeed, as my friend Eichhoff your translator calls it, ein k1eines Kunstwerk [Original Footnote A small work of art]; to which he adds, what will be satisfactory to you, that consequently his translation must be all but literal, as any omission or attempted manipulation could only destroy part of the original’s value.  

What strikes me most in your tale besides its realistic truth is that it exhibits the courage of the true artist. Not only in the way you treat the Salvation Army, in the teeth of supercilious respectability, which respectability will perhaps learn from your tale, for the first time, why the Salvation Army has such a hold on the popular masses. But chiefly in the plain unvarnished manner in which you make the old, old story, the proletarian girl seduced by a middle-class man, the pivot of the whole book. Mediocrity would have felt bound to hide the, to it, commonplace character of the plot under heaps of artificial complications and adornments, and yet would not have got rid of the fate of being found out. You felt you could afford to tell an old story, because you could make it a new one by simply telling it truly.

Your Mr. Arthur Grant is a masterpiece. 
If I have anything to criticise, it would be that perhaps, after all, the tale is not quite realistic enough. Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truth in reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances. Now your characters are typical enough, as far as they go; but the circumstances which surround them and make them act, are not perhaps equally so. In the City Girl the working class figures as a passive mass, unable to help itself and not even showing (making) any attempt at striving to help itself. 

All attempts to drag it out of its torpid misery come from without, from above. Now if this was a correct description about 1800 or 1810, in the days of Saint-Simon and Robert Owen, it cannot appear so in 1887 to a man who for nearly fifty years has had the honour of sharing in most of the fights of the militant proletariat. The rebellious reaction of the working class against the oppressive medium which surrounds them, their attempts – convulsive, half conscious or conscious-at recovering their status as human beings, belong to history and must therefore lay claim to a place in the domain of realism.” 

Letter to Margaret Harkness; Engels April 1888; Marx and Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow; 1975; p.379-81. 
at: http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm

(ii) Characterisation must be accurate and represent both an individual and the background of that person – becoming a “type.”

Engels thought that it was important to depict not only a generic “type” in a character, but that the “type” should at the same time be sufficently realistic as to be recognisable as a true single “personality.”

“I have now also read Die Alten und die Neuen [The Old Ones and the New], [Original Footnote: A novel by Minna Kautsky] for which I sincerely thank you. The life of the salt-mine workers is described with as masterly a pen as were the portraits of the peasants in Stefan. [Original Footnote: Stefan von Grillenhof was the first novel written by Minna Kautsky……. the characters exhibit the sharp individualisation. so customary in your work. Each of them is a type but at the same time also a definite individual, a “Dieser,” [Original Footnote “This one”] as old Hegel would say, and that is how it should be.”

Engels To Minna Kautsky, November 2th 1885; From “Marx & Engels: On Literature & Art”; Moscow; 1976; p.87-89; London, November 26, 1885;
at: http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm

It should also reflect the future reality. See earlier quote from Engels.

But to do this in art, is very different from having a simple “cut-out” propagandist “formula.”

(iii) The stylistic presentation of the art must be at the highest level in order to allow the content to come out the clearest.

Numerous citations can be given of Marx and Engels insistence on achieving the highest level of professional stylistic presentation of art. It should not be forgotten that both Marx and Engels had at an early stage considered literature and poetry as a career and had both rejected this path – at least in part because they recognised their own limitations. 

A good illustration of Marx’s view that it is necessary to strike the right balance between form and content is in a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, where Marx  critiques Lassalle’s play “Franz von Sickingen”: 

“London, April 19, 1859.
Marx To Ferdinand Lassalle, on his drama Franz von Sickingen

I am now coming to Franz von Sickingen. [Original Footnote: A Drama by Lassalle-Ed]

First of all, I must praise the composition and action, and that is more than can be said of any other modern German drama. In the second instance, leaving aside the purely critical attitude to this work, it greatly excited me on first reading and it will therefore produce this effect in a still higher degree on readers who are governed more by their feelings. And this is a second and very important aspect.

Now the other side of the medal: First -this is a purely formal matter – since you have written it in verse, you might have polished up your iambs with a bit more artistry.

But however much professional poets may be shocked by such carelessness, I consider it on the whole as an advantage, since our brood of epigonous poets have nothing left but formal polish.”

Marx To Ferdinand Lassalle; Problems Of Revolutionary Tragedy: Marx To Ferdinand Lassalle On His Drama Franz Von Sickingen Transcribed By Alliance From: “Marx And Engels On Literature And Art”; Moscow; 1976.
at http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm

Summary

Those creative geniuses Marx and Engels therefore recognised a core of aesthetic principles. As can be readily appreciated by a comparison against either Zhdanov’s writings, or of the “Theses of Art,” from the Marxist Leninist Organisation Britain, drafted by Bland, the views of Marx and Engels are very similar to those enunciated by the proponents of what came to be called Socialist Realism.

(3) Should Art be “Committed?”

Whether art should be committed or not – is at the centre of the debate between pure aesthetes (“Art for Art’s Sake”) and those who argue that art has a purpose. But committed art might not art that “wears its’ heart on its sleeve.” Committed art, might be better if it does not fire the viewer’s eye with a blunderbuss. This might be another distinction between high art and propaganda art. In general, we will argue that Marx and Engels both took this line of thought. 

Thus Engels argues to Mina Kautsky, that while art “with a purpose” can well be great art (Such as that of Aeschylus, Schiller, Dante, Cervantes etc), it is not necessary to “serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution.”

“The novel itself reveals the origins of this shortcoming. You obviously felt a desire to take a public stand in your book, to testify to your convictions before the entire world. This has now been done; it is a stage you have passed through and need not repeat in this form. I am by no means opposed to partisan poetry as such. Both Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose. I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves, without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions, it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes .the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides. Here your exact knowledge and admirably fresh and lifelike presentation of both the Austrian peasants and Vienna “society” find ample material, and in Stefan you have demonstrated that you are capable of treating your characters with the fine irony which attests to the author’s dominion over the beings he has created.”

Engels To Engels To Minna Kautsky, November 2th 1885; From “Marx & Engels: On Literature & Art”; Moscow; 1976; pp.87-89.
At http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm 

He also points out to Margaret Harkness, that it is often better for the authors true opinions to remain hidden:

“I am far from finding fault with your note having written a point-blank socialist novel, a “tendezroman”, as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political vies of the authors. That is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the world of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Balzac whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas, passes, presents et a venire [past present and to come], in La Comedie Humaine gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French “society”, especially of “le monde parisien”, describing.. almost year by year from 1816-1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeois upon the society of nobles that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could the standard of la veille politesse francaise [Old French Refinement]…. Even in economic details.. I have learned more from [Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together. Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist [adherents of the Bourbons overthrown in France in 1792, who represented the interests of the landed aristocracy]; his great work is a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. … That Balzac was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.”

Letter to Margaret Harkness; Engels April 1888; Marx and Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow; 1975; p.379-81;
At http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm 

Similarly, Marx points out to Lassalle that while the content of an art work needs to be historically accurate, it is not necessary – indeed it is often counter-productive – (“Your gravest shortcoming”) – to allow characters to be “transform(ed) [from] individuals into mere mouthpieces of the spirit of the time.”

Art therefore is not a series of speeches, it is a different article from propaganda:

“London, November 26, 1885; Marx To Ferdinand Lassalle, on his drama Franz von Sickingen ;

Hence, if you did not want to reduce the collision to that presented in Gotz von Berlichingen – and that was not your plan – then Sickingen and Hutten had to succumb because they imagined they were revolutionaries (the latter cannot be said of Gotz) and, just like the educated Polish nobility of 1830, on the one hand, made themselves exponents of modern ideas, while, on the other, they actually represented the interests of a reactionary class. The aristocratic representatives of the revolution –behind whose watchwords of unity and liberty there still lurked the dream of the old empire and of club-law — should, in that case, not have absorbed all interest, as they do in your play, but the representatives of the peasants (particularly these) and of the revolutionary elements in the cities ought to have formed a quite significant active background. In that case you could to a much greater extent have allowed them to voice the most modern ideas in their most naive form, whereas now, besides religious freedom, civil unityactually remains the main idea. You would then have been automatically compelled to write more in Shakespeare’s manner whereas I regard as your gravest shortcoming the fact that a la Schiller you transform individuals into mere mouthpieces of the spirit of the time. Did you not yourself to a certain extent fall into the diplomatic error, like your Franz von Sickingen, of placing the, Lutheran-knightly opposition above the plebeian Munzer opposition?  Further, the characters are lacking in character. I exclude Charles V, Balthasar and Richard of Trier. Was there ever a time of more impressive characters than the 16th century? Hutten, I think, is too much just a representative of “inspiration” and this is boring. Was he not at the same time an ingenious person of devilish wit, and have you not therefore done him a great injustice?”

“Marx To Ferdinand Lassalle; Problems Of Revolutionary Tragedy: Marx And Engels To Ferdinand Lassalle On His Drama Franz Von Sickingen Transcribed By Alliance From: “Marx And Engels On Literature And Art”; Moscow; 1976
At http://ml-review.ca/aml/SocialistArt/Final-ME_LASSALLE.htm.

Summary:
Both Marx and Engels thought that the best art was distinct from propaganda. The latter depicts people acting as “mouthpieces.” But the best art while being very realistic and true to life, did not need to “itself offer a direct solution of the problem involved” or “even without at times ostensibly taking sides.”

(4) What Paintings  did Engels, Lenin and Stalin Admire?

Some indication has been given of this from the references of Marx and Engels in literature already cited, but there is far less regarding the visual arts.

I have not dealt with Stalin’s literary preferences as Bill has already dealt with this in his article Stalin and the Arts [http://ml-review.ca/aml/AllianceIssues/A2004/STALINART.html]. 

But since this talk is more about the visual arts, and a picture is worth a thousand words, I would like to show the favourite paintings as far as we know, of Engels and Stalin. We have some indication of their preferences in this regard, but none of either Lenin or Marx.

(i) Frederick Engels: Karl Hubner: “The Silesian Weavers”

hubner

The example that we know of for Engels, is vividly described by him in an article.

Engels clearly has absolutely no compunction about highlighting a picture that is both partisan and highly emotional.

These are two of the very elements that bourgeois ideologues find most repugnant about socialist realism:

“Let me on this occasion mention a painting by one of the best German painters, Karl Hubner, which has made a more effectual Socialist agitation than a hundred pamphlets might have done. It represents some Silesian weavers bringing linen cloth to the manufacturer, and contrasts very strikingly cold-hearted wealth on one side, and despairing poverty on the other. The well-fed manufacturer is represented with a face as red and unfeeling as brass, rejecting a piece of cloth which belongs to a woman; the woman, seeing no chance of selling the cloth, is sinking down and fainting, surrounded by her two little children, and hardly kept up by an old Man; a clerk is looking over a piece, the owners of which are with painful anxiety waiting for the result; a young man shows to his desponding mother the scanty wages he has received for his labour; an old man, a girl, and a boy, are sifting on a stone bench, and waiting for their turn; and two men, each with a piece of rejected cloth on his back, are just leaving the room, one of whom is clenching his fist in rage, whilst the other, putting his hand on his neighbour’s arm, points up towards heaven, as if saying: be quiet, there is a judge to punish him. This whole scene is going on in a cold and un-homely-looking lobby, with a stone floor: only the manufacturer stands upon a piece of carpeting; whilst on the other side of the painting, behind a bar, a view is opened into a luxuriously furnished counting-house, with splendid curtains and looking-glasses, where some clerks are writing, undisturbed by what is passing behind them,. and where the manufacturer’s son, a young, dandy-like gentleman, is leaning over the bar, with a horsewhip in his hand, smoking a cigar, and coolly looking at the distressed weavers. The painting has been exhibited in several towns of Germany, and, of course, prepared a good many minds for Social ideas. At the same time, we have had the triumph of seeing the first historical painter of this country, Charles Lessing, become a convert to Socialism.”

Frederick Engels: “Rapid Progress of Communism in Germany”; First Printed In: The New Moral World No. 25, December 13, 1844; In Collected Works; Volume 4; Moscow; 1975; pp. 229-233

(ii) V.I. Lenin

It is not known what Lenin’s favourite painting was. But it is known that he detested “Futurism,” and “incomprehensible art.”

Here is Vladmir Tatlin’s “Model of the Monument to the Third International 1920”:

tatlin

Everything we do know about Lenin’s views on art, are quite consistent with those of Stalin:

“All Lenin’s recorded utterances on art at this time suggest he approved the traditional and deplored the formally innovative. In February 1921, on a midnight visit to Varya Armand (the daughter of the revolutionary Inessa Armand), who was studying art in Moscow, Lenin became involved in a discussion with a group of art students in their hostel.These students recognised ‘nothing to the right of constructivism’ in art; but among their number was one student (a Siberian whose name, for one reason or another, has not come down to us) who made realistic works:’

“This,” says Lenin, “I understand. This is comprehensible to me, and comprehensible to you, and comprehensible to a worker and to everyone else.”‘

Similarly, in his most extended reported discourse on art, a conversation with Klara Tsetkin, he reportedly called for an art that was ‘comprehensible to the masses’.

This comprehensibility appears to have signified, in Lenin’s mind, a kind of party-oriented reportage; discussing the Soviet cinema, which he regarded as the most important art form (this was, in fact, a prescient and not at all conventional view circa 1920), Lenin emphasised the importance of documentary films, stating that ‘the production of new films, imbued with Communist ideas, reflecting Soviet actuality, should begin with the newsreel’.”

Matthew Cullerne Bown; “Socialist Realist Painting”; New Haven 1998; p. 62.

It was very soon after this time, that Lenin began a counter-attack on the ultra-leftism of the Proletkult (See http://ml-review.ca/aml/AllianceIssues/ALLIANCE7COMMUNISTACADEMY.html).

(iii) J.V.Stalin: Ilya Repin: “Zaporozhe Cossacks Write a letter to Tartar King”

repin75As described by Brown, Stalin was impressed by Repin, but espeically this picture:

“Picture depicts Cossacks writing a rude and rebellious letter to the Turkish Sultan in reply to his demands for their capitulation. The Cossacks are collectively splitting their sides in anticipation of the Sultan’s reaction…. Stalin wrote modestly leaving the exhibition in the visitor’s book: ”Was at the exhibition. Generally in my opinion good”

Matthew Culhearne Brown; “Art Under Stalin”; New York; 1991; p. 56.

(iv) W.B. Bland: Diego Rodriguez De Silva y Velazquez: “Pope Innocennzo X.”

While not in any way attempting to elevate Bland to the levels of the Marxist-Leninists discussed in this article, it is nonetheless appropriate in a memorial on Bill, to ask what were some of his favourite paintings? Bland’s relation to his leaders, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Hoxha, is a matter for history and deeper analysis.

However – In Bill’s house in Ilford, the walls were hung with a variety of impressionist painting, including Van Gogh’s “Chair and boots”; “Sunflowers.” There was also a small reproduction of Degas’s statuette of the Dancer. He lived by himself, and these articles certainly reflected his own taste.

Diego Rodriguez De Silva y Velazquez: “Pope Innocennzo X.”

Diego Velazquez-538583

On the back of a postcard sent to me, of this painting Bland wrote: “I think this portrait (on loan here at present) is one of the finest I have ever seen”;

(5) Was Good Art Made in the USSR?

In this format, it is impossible to give a full and comprehensive history of USSR painting.

However we cna give some some indication, that all range of contents dealing with human life was depicted with vivid realism and accuracy. A range of paintings will be presented as examples.

Even Anatol Lunacharskii, who at times wavered in his views, as the Commissar for enlightenment, declared himself in favour of realism; despite his pull towards the futurist leftist tendency.

In 1919 Lunarchaskii appealed in “The Artistic Task of Soviet Power’  that:

‘The central content … is the struggle for socialism and the socialist ideal itself”;
Cited Matthew Cullerne Bown; “Socialist Realist Painting”; New Haven 1998;   p. 54.

How well did the artists respond?  Flipping through the excellent publiction by Matthew Cullerne Bown, “Socialist Realist Painting” published by Yale in 1998, we can readily see some extremely wonderful works. The illustrations below are all drawn from that work.

In terms of the ‘Iconic State Art’ that was discussed earlier, perhaps the first memorable piece was that of Isaak Brodski – who was introduced to Lenin by Lunacharskii as follows:

“From an ethical and political point of view the artist Brodskii merits complete trust’;

Cited Bown M.C. Ibid; p. 57.

Thereafter an immense painting “The Ceremonial Opening of the Second Congress of the Third International” [350×550 cm] was shown in 1924. Of the 218 delegates from 67 parties, Brodski made 125 portraits, combining these into the picutre.  Each individual delegate – including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin – are recognisable.

Brodski

In the meantime, while he was working away on this massive scale, he painted Lenin and Trotsky. 

It is not recorded as far as I can find, that Trotsky modestly declined to have his picture painted. Indeed Trotsky urged that Lenin be depicted, as did Krasin (Bown Ibid p. 56).

In a later march of the Ultra-leftists of the AKhR, Brodski was driven out:

“AKhR began a purge of its own ranks in 1928. The bete-noir of the young activists was the arch-traditionalist Brodksi. In a declaration issued at the time of the May 1928 Congress, they called for a struggle with ‘photo-naturalism – Broskiism’. Brodskii was driven out fo the AKhR; soon afterwards he was followed buy the painter of Russian hisotricla scences Gavriil Gorelov – hounded out becassue in 1927 he had aprticiated in the decoration of a church – and by Leningrad apinter Mikhail Avilov.”

Cullerne Bown Ibid; p. 115.

An early example of an artistically exaggerated perspective, one that enhanced an overall realism is that of Kustodiev B.M. “A Bolshevik’; 1920 [101×141 cm].
In my view, tihs illustrates nicely the distinction between “Realism” and “Naturalism.”

Kustodiev

Kustodiev was previous to this picture, better known for nudes and portraits. He became a respected member of the arts community, and exhibited both with ultra-leftists from the Protekult and other groups. He remained unaligned.

The difficulties of daily life were portrayed with unflinching realisms as in Savitski’s G,K. “The year 1919’; 63×43 cm].

Savitski

An example of a “realism” that was quite novel – and “anti-naturalism” – in its depiction of stark cold plain background was Alexander A Deineka’s “The Defence of Petrograd”; 1927 (218×354 cm);

Deineka

Although not a member of the AKhRR, Deineka was invited to show at the 10th exhibiton of AKh RR, and this painting was “considered the star of the
exhibition” Cullerne Bown Ibid; p. 77.

He studied workers’ movements in the factory for hours at times before a picture, and he was fascinated by “rhythm.” This can be seen above.

As well can seen sharp contrasts – “the struggle of white and black elements in graphics” – as expounded by Vladimir Favorski.

Deineka was a bridge between the graphics of the socialist poster and the canvas art of Socialist Realism.

Later commentators would remark on the multi-spatial dimension (Two lines of soldiers – before and after the revolution) – as a “paradigm of the “dialectical-materialist” approach to painting.”; Cited Culleren Bown Ibid; p. 95.

The new life under sociailism was depicted as being a wide open avenue along which a young lady could drive a car towards the city, by Yuri I Pimenov “New Moscow”; in 1937 [140×170 cm].

Pimenov

The image of “A Partisan” by Sergei V Malyutin 1936 [100×150 cm] is deceptively simple. With intense focus on the man, the rutted snow behind shows how this man will travel on guard for danger.

Malyutin

While George C Nisski’s “Sebastopol – The Meeting”;(1935 77×101 cm) shows with luminescent colouring, an age-old scene of boy meets girl. With the kicker of a bunch of mates in the background no doubt good humouredly – but perhaps slightly jealously? – watching their comrade’s good fortune.

Nisski

The natural beauty of the world, was not lost on artists in the USSR of socialist realism, as a famous impressionist artist, Aleksandr M Gerasimov shows in “An Orchard in Blossom”; (1935; 124×133 cm).

Gerasimov

With the War years of course, the emphasis changed, and the war reality and bravery of the USSR people was shown clearly. Despite the privations of the war, painting went on. Exhibitions were once more held from 1942, and one, “Leningrad in the Days of the Patriotic War,” held ins the still besieged city, drew:

“weak, scarcely moving people .. to our cold exhibition hall .. carrying their most recent works”;
Bown M.C. Cited Ibid; p.216.

To be singled out are perhaps Sergei V. Gerasimov’s “The Mother of  a Partisan” (1943 184×232 cm); 

GerasimovS.V

And once more the work of Alexsandr A Deineka, whose rapid movement in “The Defence of Sebastopol” (1942 200×400 cm) makes the canvas appear cinematic. This is helped by the unusual horizontal canvas shape, a “wide angle” frame. The naked figure on the far left hurling a grenade swirls into the dressed sailor brandishing a piece of fencing as defence, who in turn is thrown into the distant sailor wielding a rifle in hand-to-hand combat.

Deineka2

Naturally again the emphasis would shift after the war, to once more depict the life of the people. “Galya of the Birds” by Pavel F Globa [1950 137×201 cm] is very far from the image that is presented by the bourgeoisie of socialist Realism. As for A.M.Gerasimov, it would not be very far-fetched to think of this in an exhibition of the Impressionists.

Globa

Conclusions

Contrary to received wisdom, Stalin’s views, and personal preferences in art were not at all dissimilar to those of Marx and Engels and Lenin.

He was not the moving force behind the plethora of bad propagandist art that was seen in the late period of the USSR. Undoubted distortions occurred, and need further exploration. However, Ultra-leftist trends were supported by a combination of misguided honest elements, and hidden revisionists. 

Nonetheless, the era of Socialist art covered a number of trends over the period 1917-1953, and undoubtedly has left future progressive artists and peoples a lasting legacy of extraordinary art. 

Whether it is to everyone’s taste is another matter. But then – not everyone is a supporter of socialism. I submit, that the art of that era is more consistent with people’s views than the modern art collected by the Saatchi’s of this world.

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