Andrew Warburton reviews the Spring issue of the Marxist journal Crisis and Critique, which focuses on art, music and culture in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
One sign of the enormity of Joseph Stalin’s influence on the international labour movement throughout the twentieth century is that intellectuals on the left continue to debate the lessons to be learned from his regime. These lessons concern not only the political experience of totalitarianism but also the cultural phenomenon of “socialist realism” and the nature of communist art. One of the most significant analyses of Stalinist culture in recent times, reprinted in 2011 by Verso Books, is Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism. Groys' book has provided, for many people, a completely original understanding of twentieth century communist aesthetics. This is why the Spring issue of the Marxist political journal Crisis and Critique - titled “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” - comes at such an opportune time. This article is a review of that issue.
A troubling question that may arise for some readers approaching this topic for the first time is why the journal’s editors would publish an issue with such a provocative title. One might expect conservative or liberal-minded critics to react to the question with a straightforward condemnation of Stalin. The explanation the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, give is that reductive interpretations of Stalinist culture - for instance, approaching that culture as “pathological,” “unintelligible,” or “irrational” - fail to adequately explain its driving force. By offering an immanent explanation of the “political rationality” of Stalinism, they hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of a culture that includes, among its contradictory effects, an apparently irrational campaign of terror and an enormous increase in Russia’s productive forces.
This approach can be seen, in many ways, as an extension of Boris Groys’ own analysis of Stalinism. Similar to Ruda and Hamza, Groys describes his approach as an “immanent” one and contrasts it with historical work that explains Stalinism through a “detailed chronology of historical facts.” For Groys, the latter approach results in misunderstandings of communist culture’s “inherent logic” and gives rise to an “outside observer’s fascination with the ceremonies of the centralized Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.” According to Ruda and Hamza, this fascination also encourages a limited representation of Stalinism as pathological or irrational and prevents an understanding of its internal dynamic. In contrast to this approach, the authors mentioned here begin with the assumption that all the features of Stalinist culture - even its excesses - must be available to analysis.
For anyone not familiar with Groys’ thesis, Alexei Penzin’s essay in this collection - Stalin Beyond Stalin: A Paradoxical Hypothesis of Communism - offers a precise summary and critique of both The Total Art of Stalinism and another book by Groys focusing specifically on communism: The Communist Postscript. In fact, as Penzin shows, Groys’ thesis on communist art is deceptively simple: rather than portraying Stalinism as a betrayal of the revolution and of modernist forms of art, as many critics and historians tend to do, Groys considers “socialist realism” to be their consummation.
His reasoning for this is that whereas the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s wanted to use art to remake society completely from scratch (i.e., it wanted art to become a productive force that would break with every aesthetic and social formation that went before), Stalin and the socialist realist “regime of art” turned this dream into a reality by remaking society as a “totalized” aesthetic form. As Groys points out:
Under Stalin the dream of the avant grade was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organized in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favored.
It is difficult, in the light of this thesis, to think of socialist realism as a simply “reactionary” form of art, because it contains within it - in a more radically politicized form - all the lessons of the Russian avant-garde. Whatever one’s thoughts on Stalinism, many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique cannot help but respond to Groys’ insistence on its artistic and ideological power.
Tatlin’s Tower (1919) by Vladimir Tatlin, avant-garde constructivist design.
Although this issue of Crisis and Critique concerns itself primarily with politics, one essay, in particular, responds to the call for an immanent exploration of Stalinist art and culture in a way that aligns with Groys’ project. The essay - Who is Stalin? What is he?” by Lars T. Lih - pays particular attention to the mythical dimensions of two cantatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Hail to Stalin and Song of the Forests.
Rather than explaining the Stalinist features of these compositions as reactionary impositions on the composers’ otherwise “authentic” careers, Lih chooses - like Groys - to analyse the Stalinist integrity of these artworks by “taking Stalin into account.” This means placing the librettos in the context of Russian literary history and understanding Stalin, both the “mythical figure” and the “actual individual,” as the latest representative in a succession of Russian leaders, including Peter the Great and Boris Godunov. Song of the Forests, for instance, portrays Stalin in the act of mobilising the people for a great “reforestation project.” According to Lih, this representation contrasts Stalin deliberately with Pushkin’s character of Peter the Great in a poem of the same name. Whereas Pushkin’s Peter was an imperialist whose “great project is to remove a forest associated with darkness and primitiveness,” Stalin emerges as an anti-imperialist builder of peace whose “main motive in the cantata [is] ‘happiness for the narrod [i.e., the people].’”
Prokofiev’s Hail to Stalin, on the other hand, uses the “folklore-like expressions of the Soviet people” to portray Stalin in different states of mythic transcendence drawn, apparently, from ancient traditions. In the line “the sun now shines differently to us on earth… it is with Stalin in the Kremlin,” Lih sees Stalin as “a sort of vegetation god who guarantees fertility and growth.” Amid all this, the leader is portrayed, for Lih, as a “sacred” figure who demonstrates the ability to access a “sacred truth” and mediate between this truth and the life of his people; he does this, however, through a Marxist understanding of the laws of history, not through any divine communication.
The implication of Lih’s readings supports Groys’ thesis that Stalinist culture offers its consumers access to a mythology that transcends economic necessity and touches the transhistorical. As Lih points out, the Stalin one finds in these works is
an entryway into myth - a symbol whose meanings can only be grasped through knowledge of the Stalin of history, but whose ramifications far transcend him.
In Stalin’s lifetime, critics and philosophers already understood that the overcoming of the contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to a radically different approach to the distinction between aesthetics and economics. In 1938, the Soviet Marxist Mikhail Lifshitz explained that the capitalist mode of production had brought the “inimical relationship… between the poetical play of fantasy and the prose of life” to its fullest possible tension. By alienating workers from their labour, capitalism emphasized the sharp distinction between work and play to an intolerable degree.
With this in mind, Lih’s insights into the mythic dimension of Stalinism are clarified: Stalinist art works derive their power from portraying the Soviet Union’s socialized mode of production - in this case, the reforestation project of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests - as transporting workers out of the “prosaic” level of existence and thereby resolving the contradiction between a reality reduced to economics and the desire for mythic existence. The consumer of the Stalinist artwork aesthetically attains such an existence: his life is no longer limited to economic exchange and his aesthetic senses are liberated from the compartmentalized world of “play.”
As Lifshitz points out:
Communist society removes… the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’… Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes that all-sided development of the whole individual which the greatest social thinkers hitherto could only dream about.
Stakhanovite from the OGPU plant (1931-1939) by Vitaly Tikhov.
Many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique demonstrate an acute awareness of the power of ideology, which is really another word for “myth.” This awareness, of course, places great importance on art, literature, and aesthetics as bearers of ideology. However, the authors also seem ambivalent about the role of ideology in communist politics, an ambivalence that’s heightened, of course, by the awareness that so many communist experiments have degenerated into ideologically repressive regimes (Stalin being the quintessential example). The fact that many of the writers seem to believe that the existence of democratic, working-class organizations will never produce meaningful changes without some larger political - and ideological - oversight only heightens the sense of ambivalence.
Jean-Claude Milner, for example, in his article “The Prince and the Revolutionary,” points out that Lenin’s gravest “political mistake” was that he believed too much in Marxist economics and failed to understand the importance of a political imaginary. Believing he possessed full knowledge of Russia’s economic situation and that an “affirmative doctrine of economic management” would be enough to build socialism in the country, he failed to grasp the sheer level of ideological manipulation required. It was therefore left to Stalin to create a political mythology capable of transforming society through fiat. One only has to return to our earlier discussion of Groys and Lih to understand the aesthetic character of this mythology.
Other writers in the collection dismiss Stalinism as not introducing anything original to the Marxist-Leninist tradition. The writer and Trotskyist activist Paul Le Blanc learns songs from Maoists in India but finds that the aspiration these comrades express - “we demand our share of wealth earned by our sweat!” - bears no essential relationship to the “Stalinist reference points” they use. The essence of the Maoists’ songs, for Le Blanc, is “far more consistent with core beliefs… found in such revolutionaries as Marx, Lenin, and Krupskaya.” In other words, in contrast to Lih, Milner, and Groys, Stalinism is reduced to a husk containing a properly revolutionary core, and any original aesthetics produced under Stalin could only be in the service of reaction.
Le Blanc’s dismissal of Stalin finds support from Louis Proyect in his review of Crisis and Critique’s new issue on the blog The Unrepentant Marxist. Proyect describes some of the authors in “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” as “crypto-Stalinists,” saying they’re “more interested in what Stalin said than than what he did.” He goes on to argue that “abandoning the rigid dichotomies of crypto-Stalinism is a major task facing the left.” However, the role played by language and aesthetics in Groys and in the writings of the so-called crypto-Stalinists in Crisis and Critique suggests that a fundamental disagreement exists between Proyect’s Marxism and the postmodern dialectics of the former writers. Their interest in “what Stalin said” and in official Soviet ideology arises from an emphasis on the role of language and aesthetics in the shaping of history.
Hence, for Groys, socialist realism may resolve the problem of art’s subordination to market forces and might even allow art to accede to its true power as art. But that doesn’t make Stalinism palatable. Equally, the unpalatability of Stalinism does not mean that philosophers should simply stop questioning what art would look like if it were freed from market forces. With the Soviet Union being our only model of a society in which the market was completely abolished, this question is inevitably going to come up against Stalinism. By dismissing those who attempt to understand Stalinism and who see it, theoretically, as an “answer” to a philosophical dilemma, Proyect surely fails to understand the dilemma itself.
Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For? is a varied and profound collection, which adds to our understanding of Stalinist culture. The willingness to approach Stalinism from the “inside” is daring, and yet, it mustn’t be avoided simply out of fear of irrationality or “evil.” Without an understanding of the rationality that motivates seemingly irrational events, communist projects of the future will be impoverished.