On Socialism and Art

This is nothing more than a link to a talk given by David Wash of the Socialist Equality Party back in 1998, and a place to discuss it.  The talk is not short, and the issues are not simple (at least, for me).  I have no idea if anyone here would want to read through the whole thing, but I have to say I found it fascinating, insightful, and dead on.

“To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.”

So, for those who want to read it, here it is.


Published by

Avatar photo


I play the drum.

38 thoughts on “On Socialism and Art”

  1. Oh ye GODS was that dry! Hold on a moment, I need a full pitcher of tea with a glass of wine chaser to get the sand out of my mouth and eyes after reading that.


    Ahhhhh! That is better! I am partially re-hydrated. I could wish that Trotskyists were more like Trotsky, and added some zing into their writing and lectures; however Lenin and Leninists are even worse, so I shall attempt to not complain…too much.

    Some years ago, I spent a few weeks in research and calculations to answer the question “just what would it take for a worker in a socialist economy to support him or herself, add surplus to the economy for the use of research and development of new technologies or the study of old, and add surplus to the State for the use of all people (roads, schools, etc.)?”

    Since I did all of that to answer my own question for my own pleasure, and once answered to my own satisfaction then discarded it, I am not about to go through all of the rigamorol to do it again to defend it for possible readers here. If anyone wants to do the research and study for themselves, calculate it out to answer the question for themselves, and their answer turns out different from mine, so be it. This concludes my disclaimer to people who wish me to do their research for them for free. But SO….

    By what I figured, (which I am not putting forth a proven, scientific fact) the hypothetical worker would need to work 5 days per week, for four hours per day, to support him or her self, innovation, and the State.

    This leaves 12 waking hours per day for……….what? Twiddling one’s thumbs? I seriously doubt that.

    It leaves those 12 hours per day for pursuing individual desire. That desire can take many forms, from adding more working hours to accumulate luxury items (I want a sailboat, dammit! Steve, do you remember that discussion on socialist economy that we had back in, I think, 2002, where my main point was that I wanted a sailboat?), to devoting time to the physical expression of humanity through arts and crafts, to brainstorming discussions of the Great Questions, to playing WoW until one’s fingers bled.

    The entire, practical basis of Socialism, and the rejection of Capitalism, is that workers should enjoy the FULL fruits of their labor, and not have it stolen from them by elite classes to hoard for their own purposes of power and greed. Without the burden of providing not only for themselves, but for the greed and power of the elite, the working classes have a LOT of free time to devote to their own improvement and pleasure.

    At least, that is my understanding of the practical principles of Marxism. Anyone is free to correct me if my understanding is completely off.

    But, continuing with this in mind, it would seem to me that by regulating art (even if such regulation is by social agreement only), then one is regulating the freedom of expression that is, at its very heart, the reward of a socialist society. To confine artistic expression ONLY to those things that either exemplify or glorify the workers, or pertains to workers and work, is to entirely miss the entire REASON for art in the first place.

    Art is finding the fantastical in the mundane, and the mundane in the fantastical. Art is both a reflection of the modern world, and an escape from it. Art allows us to both escape from our day-to-day lives, and to empathize with the people that inhabit those day-to-day lives. To confine art is to confine both our past and our future.

    But art also contributes to innovation. Would any of us have slept on a water bed (whether you loved it or hated it) if the idea had not been popularized by Heinlein? That is simply a single example in the entire history of the world. Art is imagination made manifest, which leads to innovation and science.

    So yes, I believe that the free expression of art is walks hand-in-hand with the basic precepts of a socialist society.

    After all, isn’t Socialism ABOUT freedom?

  2. Caliann: Okay, color me impressed. Yes. All I can add is that your 4 hours a day doesn’t take into account what innovation in automation could do if we as a species really wanted it to.

  3. I wished to confine it to the technology currently available, rather than extrapolate on possible, future innovation. However, I eagerly look forward to robots cleaning my home and feeding my goats.

    So, Sensei, I take it that I have learned well? :)

  4. “The entire, practical basis of Socialism, and the rejection of Capitalism, is that workers should enjoy the FULL fruits of their labor, and not have it stolen from them by elite classes to hoard for their own purposes of power and greed.”

    That sounds very good to me. Similarly, we don’t need elites who first decide what to make and then spend a lot of resources persuading us that what they made is what we want to have.

    Ideally, everybody would somehow just tell the economy what they want, and the economy would — with minimal overhead — figure out what everybody should to do to get all that. And that would be it.

    I have met libertarians who had a similar idea. They were ready to assume that an abstraction they called a “free market” would automatically do all the hard parts without anybody having to think about it. Also they assumed that some people deserve more benefits than others, and that the free market would automatically decide who those people were and how much they deserved, and nobody would have to think about that either. Apart from a few little details like that, it seems very similar.

    I can sort of imagine a system for people to tell the economy what they want. Where I lose track is figuring out how to get it. Traditional economies work mostly on tradition. At Christmas time people will want Christmas trees and eggnog, and they’ll probably want about the same amount as last year or a bit more, so make that stuff and advertise it. Make a few new things and see how well you can sell them. Like that.

    When it’s people actually noticing what they want, tradition is likely to be a poor predictor. We need a better way, and I haven’t heard a decent proposal.

    Say people want art supplies. There are *lots* of dual-purpose items that can be used for art. They spend their leisure time making whatever art they like. Then somebody notices that some of it really touches him, and he wants art that he had no idea ahead of time he would want. Is anybody hurt? Is there anything about this to require attention from social or economic theorists?

  5. J Thomas, while that was interesting rhetoric, what did any of it have to do with free expression of art within the ideologies of socialism? Did you even READ the article? No, you did not, because it is about Art, and its place and expression in a socialist society, not about socialism in and of itself.

    Do you have anything to say about how Marx and Trotsky, or even Lenin, viewed art and culture in a socialist society? If so, please share!

  6. Caliann: Yes, indeed, Grasshopper. :-) And I also look forward to robots cleaning your house and feeding your goats. And maybe even keeping your goats from climbing all over my car, although that may be asking a bit much. ;-)

  7. Oh, I meant to say: “I could wish that Trotskyists were more like Trotsky, and added some zing into their writing and lectures;” I quite agree. And, ironically, that is some of what Dave was talking about. For various reasons too long to go into, one result of some ugly periods in the Trotskyist movement, especially in the US, was an absolute terror of subjectivity, which turned into a terror of anything that might even *sound* subjective, which, in turn, turned into rigorous avoidance of anything in which the personality of the writer was at all revealed–hence, very dry, dull, lifeless prose. Some of what Dave is discussing is an attempt to overcome some of that. Which is, as I said, ironic.

  8. NOTHING will keep goats from climbing…on toys, cars….you…. :D

    I can understand, especially during McCarthyism, where anything subjective would immediately be taken as objective and then used in propaganda to the detriment of the cause of the writer/speaker. That would certainly engender a vindicated paranoia, and honestly, today’s right wing isn’t much better…..

    However, while I understand, that doesn’t mean that that I cannot complain about it. :D

    I look forward to my goats climbing on your car. LOL

  9. “J Thomas, while that was interesting rhetoric, what did any of it have to do with free expression of art within the ideologies of socialism? Did you even READ the article?”

    I read the whole thing and did not much enjoy it. I was much more interested in something you wrote, and I responded mostly to that. I summarized my thoughts on socialist art in the last few lines.

    Since you ask, I will provide a quick summary.

    Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky all agreed that they did not particularly need art to support revolution or the Party etc, they wanted the new society to support art as one of its goals. The art should be free to do anything.

    But they lost out to the Stalinist approach which said that the function of art was to support the bureaucracy, and the function of the bureaucracy wrt art was to suppress whatever art did not support the bureaucracy well enough. Many marxists tried to oppose Stalinists, but mostly failed because their opponents ruthlessly maintained that the function of marxism was to support the bureaucracy, and the function of the bureaucracy wrt marxism was to suppress whatever of marxism did not support the bureaucracy well enough.

    More recently a marxist movement has redeveloped the idea that marxist society should and does and will support any art, which has value beyond its relation to Party, politics, socialism, etc.

    Other things — the author got into an argument with a random australian about Oscar Wilde. He talks about it at great length. Basicly, Wilde called himself a socialist and said he did art for its own sake. The author said it was fine for Wilde to do that, but the random critic said that since Wilde was a socialist he must have made art to advance socialism, and anybody who says otherwise is wrong. The author explains at length why he is right and the critic is wrong, that it’s fine to do art that is not specifically socialist art. He explains this at great length.

    There were Marxists who said that the proletariat should not be exposed to art from evil classes because it might give them cooties or something. The author says the value of art is in spite of its cultural baggage and not because of it, and anyway there’s nothing wrong with learning about how evil class systems worked.

    There were Marxists who said that the new society should produce only Proletarian art and nothing else because the other classes are evil. The author says that Proletarian culture is a temporary transition toward a classless society, and the classless society can produce whatever art it wants to. So let people produce whatever art they want to now, too.

    I may have missed a lot. Did you see something important I missed?

  10. ~giggles~ Oh you are GRAND, J Thomas. That was rather like a sarcastic book report, and I approve! :D

    I believe that the proletariat attempting to “protect” the the poor, ignorant, working classes from ideas that may be opposed to the philosophy is the same a religion attempting to “protect” their parishes from those “radical” ideas of atheism and/or other belief systems.

    If you must exclude other ideological positions from the consciousness of your followers, then your own position is suspect, don’t you think?

    On your previous post, I understand your frustration. I know what kind of society/government/economic system we NEED, but I have no idea how to get from here to there. Propositions, both bloody and clean, on how to get from point A. to point B., in my mind, at least, have proven unworkable. I don’t mind a bloody revolution, as the sacrifice of some now for the freedom of many is an easy choice, but I do not see how revolution, bloody or otherwise, would do anything but use up the surplus wealth required to begin a socialist system. It would be back to Russia attempting communism, but skipping steps one through eight and believing that it will work. ~sighs~

    And as Steve mentioned in a previous post, the Elite NEVER “go silently into the night”. So it becomes yet another Catch 22. To effect change requires a bloody revolution. Bloody revolutions are EXPENSIVE revolutions. Reconstruction and organization after said revolution will be even more expensive. A socialist economy requires the base of stored/hoarded capital to get started. Said revolution will seriously devalue our fiat monetary system, diminishing the availability of capital for both reconstruction and beginning a new economic structure. Yeeks!

    Long ago, Steve said to me that what was needed for change was for there to be mass awareness of a superior system. I do not believe that is the case anymore, if it ever was. I think that there needs to be mass awareness of *achieving* a superior system. It is fine to know that on that other island over there, there are coconuts, and you have a severe hankering for some coconut. However, if you can’t figure out a way to GET to those coconuts, they might as well be stars in the sky for all of the importance that they have in your life. You may as well content yourself with the mangoes growing on your own island.

    Change, of any sort, is not going to happen until the masses can see that step A leads to step B, to other steps, and then the GOAL! Until someone can be forthcoming with that understanding, we sit.

    Oh, the site doesn’t have access to communicating with other commenters, so I am caliann dot graves at gmail dot com. If you wish to discuss not seeming disgustingly arrogant to readers…a position that I happen to have some familiarity. :)

  11. Oh, and I have Libertarian friends who wax eloquently on the idea of an unregulated market, completely ignoring the fact that the success of such fully depends upon a corporate class that is NOT motivated by greed. I never seem to get that across to them, though. ~sighs again~

  12. LOL No, no I don’t. I have dried up Brie, Mardi, and Cypress, and they will be on “milking vacation” until next spring, to give them a break. Nipper and Lulu are at Emily’s, providing milk for her newly bought bottle babies…leaving me with NO goats to milk until Ginger and Heidi get her on the 23rd. :)

  13. “I don’t mind a bloody revolution, as the sacrifice of some now for the freedom of many is an easy choice, but I do not see how revolution, bloody or otherwise, would do anything but use up the surplus wealth required to begin a socialist system.”

    I want to make a side-tour into biology which has concepts ready-made that I need.

    Beijerinck’s Postulates from microbiology:
    1. Everything is everywhere.
    2. The environment selects.

    He supposed that anywhere you go there are a few bacteria ready to fill any ecological niche available, and the ones we notice are the ones that have found a niche they can thrive in. The others are waiting (and dying, and being replaced in small numbers), waiting for their chance.

    Cowles’s ecological succession:
    1. Some organisms will find ecological niches where they thrive.
    2. They then change their environment to the point that something else thrives in the new environment.
    3. The occasional stable “climax” ecosystem occurs when something changes the environment into a place where nothing else can thrive any better than it does.

    In that context, wealthy “liberal” societies tend to have ecological niches available for idealistic socialists. But when there is a bloody revolution, during and after the revolution those niches are destroyed. What thrives then is whatever can best thrive in conditions of violence and disorder. The French revolution produced Jacobins and eventually Napoleon. The Russian revolution produced Bolsheviks and eventually Stalin. When there’s a lot of chaos, the people who take over are not necessarily the ones who will do the best job of running things — they are necessarily the people who will do the best job of taking over.

    “And as Steve mentioned in a previous post, the Elite NEVER “go silently into the night”.”

    Sometimes some of them do. Like, given the internet, lots of traditional bookstores are losing out. Barnes and Noble got a little room to breathe when Borders failed, but I see no evidence that they have found a way to survive. Lots of old businesses are threatened, and have found no better approach than throw their inventory online and hope they can sell something that way. There’s no serious attempt to shut down internet commerce, only attempts to dominate it.

    “Long ago, Steve said to me that what was needed for change was for there to be mass awareness of a superior system. I do not believe that is the case anymore, if it ever was. I think that there needs to be mass awareness of *achieving* a superior system.”

    I think there are possibilities there. Even elites can get caught up in an ideology and agree to things that might not serve their self-interest. Also, even if there won’t be as much surplus to share around an elite, each member may believe he has a better-than-average chance of getting more than his share….

    And a system that creates more, can provide more for everybody and still give more to an elite at the same time.

    Currently the dominant idea I see in the USA is the libertarian one. There’s a Christian ideal that it’s better to be poor and raise your children to be moral and not pretend you have much influence over the world, but that one won’t cause much change. Socialist ideas don’t get traction just now. People assume they are based entirely on top-down government control, and the libertarians have discredited that. So mostly nobody pays attention to socialist ideas, not enough to even find out what they’re really saying.

    LIbertarian ideals are based on 3 principles.

    1. Everything works best when it’s done entirely by voluntary trades among individual traders. This is guaranteed to get everybody what they want better than any other way.

    2. Systems work best when they arise by accident, with nobody trying to make them work any particular way. Government planning is especially bad, that trick never works.

    3. Even if #1 and #2 don’t actually work well, still they are both the only moral way to do things and that makes them the best and only right way.

    I find this unpromising, but this year and probably this decade, if you oppose this stuff directly then you are swimming directly against the tide. So I’m looking for ways to mutate it into something workable.

  14. Sometimes, I explain to Libertarians that Libertarianism won’t work by taking the ideology and slowly tearing it apart, bit by bit. I do this with Libertarians who I believe have some working brain cells.

    Otherwise, I just say, “Nope, you are an idiot.” and go on my merry way. :)

  15. A whole lot of people *want to believe* that libertarians are right. And their third postulate is a big help in that. If you try to argue the facts, they switch to moral arguments and when you argue that they are morally wrong they know you are a communist who can and should be ignored.

    They are using a variant of an argument which was powerful in the 19th century. Darwin argued that evolution could optimize biological traits. Marsh and Clement argued that similar things optimize ecosystems. Adam Smith and Ricardo argued that economies get optimized. Marx argued that whole social systems inevitably evolve into a climax ecosystem.

    How come they are wrong when Darwin, Ricardo, and Marx are right? Because they way overstate their claims. To the extent that Darwin, Ricardo and Marx overstated their claims they were wrong too.

    A lot of it is intellectual laziness. I run into that *all the time* in other contexts, so why not here? Engineers keep saying “I had this math/physics problem I didn’t want to think about, so I programmed a neural net to solve it. It works like a charm! Sweet!” They don’t understand how the neural net works, and they just hope their test cases cover all the failure states. Pathetic. “I didn’t trust my 2 billion neurons to solve this problem, so instead I trusted a 1000-neuron neural net. Neural nets are the modern way to solve problems so it’s got to be right.”

    If we give up the idea that it has to work best when nobody thinks about it, this stuff does give the core of something. Free trades. We should have a big cheap information system that lets you say what you probably want, that finds many ways to link up your wants with other people’s to generate big orders that may deserve big discounts. Let people bid on parts of those big orders if they don’t feel confident to do the whole thing. Etc. An actual great big market, designed to for low overhead.

    If we give up the idea that systems work best when nobody designs them, we can look at how they actually work. Plan for the failure cases. Think about what it is we consider optimal. Free markets are one good tool in the toolchest, let’s look at when they work and what maintenance they need.

    “The entire, practical basis of Socialism, and the rejection of Capitalism, is that workers should enjoy the FULL fruits of their labor, and not have it stolen from them by elite classes to hoard for their own purposes of power and greed.”

    Your ideals are not so different from theirs. Clear away a few of their dogmas and it turns completely compatible.

    I tend to think that arguing about their dogmas in english is not very effective. Computer simulations should be better, particularly when they can easily write their own simulations with their own assumptions. Once they go from “I don’t have to think about it because it’s all guaranteed to work out” to “Here’s my simulation which shows why it is guaranteed to work out perfectly” they’re already almost over it.

    But somehow I find myself spending my leisure time arguing about the Civil War instead of building easy-to-use simulation systems. It’s fun in the short run.

  16. Don’t worry, J Thomas, I spend my time diagnosing problems in caprines over the internet. For free. Completely non-productive use of my time, but hey, dead goats make me sad, and if I can say, “Your goat is deficient in selenium and calcium. Give her 2 cc of Bo-Se SQ just once, and drench her with 1 cup of CMPK solution once per day for the next 3 days and she will be fine”, that saves a goat, and her kids. That’s one heck of a feel-good.

    8 years now I have spent in self-study on goats and small ruminants, and did I spend the last 2 days studying the field trials for that new Caseous Lymphadenitis vaccine? Nope, I spent it looking up history articles on the slave trade in the south circa 1830-1850. Studying those field trials might have actually been USEFUL (I am not vaccinating my disease-free and tested herd until I have some facts about how the vaccine performs in real-world situations), but noooo-ooo-oooo. It’s more fun to read 40,000 word docs on slave traders.

    ~sighs~ I am hopeless.

    Libertarianism has the same problem that pure Communism has (which Socialism doesn’t share): It is a perfect system for the issues that it addresses until you add in the variable of those pesky humans. Libertarianism, unfortunately, DEPENDS on everyone being moral, but not all people are moral beings.

    Governmental systems (of which Libertarianism is one), if they are to work, have to provide for, and prevent, the amassing of power through unethical means. Just like economic systems, if they are to work, have to provide for, and prevent, the amassing of wealth through unethical means. Any system that depends upon humans being naturally ethical *will* fail.

  17. Yes; a digression with nothing to do with art, but I think libertarianism and communism secretly reach around behind the world and hold hands.


    Returning to the art-themed thesis of the topic, it’s hard for me to credit that early Russian communism led to any kind of artistic renaissance whatsoever. The brief period in between the revolution and Stalin’s monstrous reign was characterized by enormous unrest and bloodshed. It may be fashionable to suggest that art flourishes in times of change, but I would say rather that art flourishes in times of wealth and patronage, as during the Italian renaissance.

    So considering the brief Soviet period prior to Stalin, whether you think Dzerzhinsky was a great man who simply had to suppress counter-revolution by any means necessary, or whether you think he was a blood-simple monster who laid the groundwork for future tyranny, surely it’s clear that art cannot readily express itself when a civil war is in progress and when the art schools have been shut down and all the state organs of media are under strict censorship, and when artists can be denounced and arrested without trial merely on the basis of their art. Obviously after Stalin came to power things were far worse; there was arguably no communism anyway, and what art there was was under the thought control of the demented bureaucracy and their even more insane controllers.

    So in Russia, even under the disastrous rule of the later Romanovs, art and literature produced rather more successful and lasting work, merely due to more societal stability, and the traditional patronage of the nobility in a feudal system, even a decaying one like the Russians had in the 19th century. In music: Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, et al. In literature — Dostoievsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy and an even longer list of other well known names. In fine arts, uh: well, I dunno, but I can’t think of any outstanding communist-era artists either. The few names in literature and music you can come up with from the communist era are simply not as good and are far less numerous than their counterparts from the previous century.

    Similarly, rather little of artistic worth seems to have arisen in China during the Mao period, though I admit my knowledge of this period is weak in terms of artistic output. Even so, it’s hard to imagine art worthy of the name being possible except as a secret opposition movement under the disastrous and destructive conditions of the Cultural Revolution. Certainly there are many fine Chinese artists, writers and musicians today, but the Chinese system today is some kind of weird mutant thing that imposes a superficial communist facade over a corrupt and grasping state-capitalist/confucian hybrid layer that itself exists over what seems to be an actual communist core making for a system (of sorts) that I can barely even characterize coherently as one thing or another.

    But that’s only one point from that essay:

    “To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.”

    This is a fine sentiment. To the extent that an honest communist system allows and encourages seekers after truth, this is certainly a path in which the arts will flourish. The problem comes when some bureaucrat or political committee decides for an artist what is truth and what is not.

  18. Pure Libertarianism is a jungle. Wild and free, but hardly ideal for it’s inhabitants.

    Hybrid systems of government have been the most successful for the past few hundred years. If you focus on the idea of fair markets instead of free ones, you end up with a better result. Minimal regulation to prevent what happens at the extremes of the free market, where at the low end people can’t feed their families, and at the high end where one person (entity?) monopolizes huge segments of the market. Let the fair market approximate a meritocracy.

    The real question is how to remove the problems when the people that have manipulated the system really like the way it works right now.

  19. “Returning to the art-themed thesis of the topic, it’s hard for me to credit that early Russian communism led to any kind of artistic renaissance whatsoever.”

    Well, that one isn’t hard to settle. Hell, he gives the names of several artists who did remarkable work during that period; check them out. Ideally, read Literature and Revolution, in which several of them, and others, are discussed in detail. That isn’t a question where speculation is necessary.

  20. Since it now past 5am over here I shall be brief; so far the artists pointed to seem to me to be somewhat lacking in genius. And I am not prepared to accept that they are wonderful simply because they believe the right things…

  21. @skzb

    Obviously there were many artists of all types in the Russian communist period. I didn’t say there were none. List-making proves nothing, however, unless there is widespread agreement on the value of the list, which I doubt can be found outside of socialist circles. When the author seems to claim that only socialist art judgments have validity, or that contrary artistic opinion and critical writing is necessarily politically motivated — this by a socialist political essayist… well it’s hard to take the rest as seriously as it deserves.

    Obviously the value of any given artist on that list is a subjective judgment. You may well honestly think that Shostakovich is superior to all those 19th century composers, but I don’t believe this is a very widely shared view. To suggest that all of them in that list are superior to their bourgeois contemporaries and Tsarist predecessors, however…. While some of those listed are still well regarded around the world, many of those names are today obscure and all but unknown except to specialists; and this is not because some kind of anti-communist art-critic conspiracy has passed the word for the blackball.

    That list and the author’s insistence on its value to me smacks of a tribalist attitude. Within the world of that essay, to be labelled anti-communist is to be placed beyond the pale, and to claim that communist art was in any way inferior is to be anti-communist. Critics with opposing views are preemptively attacked without individual citation; this kind of broad-brush attack is another sign of tribalism, not to say propagandism. This is a self-defeating form of argument; in a way the very opposite of Hegelian argument, because it lives in its own small world of the thesis, rejecting not only the antithesis but also any exterior synthesis reality. To my mind, this is willful doctrinaire blindness, and detracts from the value of the essay.

    He makes plenty of other good points along the way, but that stubborn little list of artists and writers does not seem to me to be one of them.

  22. Stevie: No one is asking you to. Most of the, in fact, did not “believe the right things.”

    Um. I hadn’t realized we were making a list and trying to put it in order of greatness. I think such an undertaking would be a waste of time. (Not that I haven’t done it; I have a list of favorite movies, favorite writers, &c; but I don’t think such lists have actual significance.) I was disputing your statement that “Returning to the art-themed thesis of the topic, it’s hard for me to credit that early Russian communism led to any kind of artistic renaissance whatsoever.” which seems demonstrably untrue. The work of film and visual artists alone from those few years was a huge influence on the artistic development in the West. I can tell that several of those names came up as influences when I reached the 20th Century in researching The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars. To me, that indicates an artistic renaissance, which remarkably happened in spite of civil war and desperate conditions (which, as you said, are generally terrible times for art).

    “Within the world of that essay, to be labelled anti-communist is to be placed beyond the pale,”

    This is quite a remarkable statement. It seems to me that the entire thrust of the article was exactly the reverse: the political opinions of the artist are not the issue. At the very beginning, he says. “[Marx] ranked Cervantes and Balzac above all other novelists” I couldn’t tell you about Cervantes, but it is well known that Balzac was an arch-reactionary. Yet Walsh makes a point of mentioning him as one of Marx’s favorite novelists. In his list of influential Russian artists of the post-revolutionary period, I recall Trotsky mentioning several of them in Literature and Revolution as anti-Communist. Indeed, Pasternak can hardly be called sympathetic to Bolshevism, yet Trotsky hardly considered him “beyond the pale.” Seriously, I am utterly lost as to how you reached that conclusion.

  23. A musical aside: I wouldn’t rate Shostakovich over Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, but I would rate him–and Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, and Stravinsky–over just about any of their contemporaries, which seems a better benchmark.

    Of course, I have no idea to what degree Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky considered their art to be contributing, or not contributing, to a “socialist cause”. From reading /Shostakovich and Stalin/ I got the distinct impression that Shostakovich would have vastly preferred to avoid the question of what his work “meant” in any political sense–a position which, of course, he was not allowed to take for most of his working life.

  24. I don’t think any of them necessarily considered their art to be contributing to any cause except art; nor is there a reason why they should have. That’s sort of the point.

  25. On reflection…

    Stevie, Miramon, and evergreen have all said or implied that there is something in the article that indicates an artist needs to be a socialist to do good work, or something on that order. Now, when three smart people all see one thing, and I see another, I have to at least ask myself if maybe I’m the one missing something. This is certainly possible; I’ve been known to blind myself to things I didn’t want to see. But could one of you point it out to me? I’m sincerely puzzled.

  26. So, how does Orson Scott Card fit into this?

    Incidentally, I attended a convention where Card was a guest, and I attended one panel that was about him. He runs a writers’ “bootcamp” and half a dozen of his successful graduates discussed the class with him. They mostly talked about how great he was, while he mostly talked about how great his class was.

    When he described the class, he stressed that the most important thing about it was the chance to critique everybody else’s work. He said that writers learn more by seeing the mistakes in other people’s writing than they do from anything else. They don’t see the mistakes in their own writing, but those things pop out when it’s somebody else. (However, he also talked about how people who easily see flaws in other people’s writing don’t see the same flaws in their own. The things they most criticize in other people’s writing tend to be the things they themselves get wrong most. He gave the example of a man who critiqued everybody else’s work for cardboard villains who didn’t make sense or come alive. But his own stories had cardboard villains and he didn’t see it when others pointed it out.)

    Card felt that his own superior writing style came primarily from a job where he edited a Mormon publication. Various Mormons would write 4-page or 6-page articles about their lives as Mormons, and he would figure out what they were trying to say and condense it down to one page.

    It looked to me like a small fraction of his students went on to become published writers. But another fraction at least as large became editors. His editors had a lot of fellow-feeling for him and for their fellow students. So whatever elements of style etc that they picked up together, that might not appeal to general readers but that would appeal to members of that in-group, would tend to be perpetuated. The editors would select for it whether or not it helped sales. And that would apply to each competing writing class.

    In person, in that context, Card looked kind of conceited etc. It might be hard to avoid that in that particular circumstance.

  27. I don’t think that the speaker implies that an artist needs to be a socialist to do good work; at one point (“The October Revolution provided an enormous impulse to artistic creation…”, followed by a long list of artists, only three of whom I recognize, philistine that I am) I thought he implied the listed artists could somehow be claimed as “socialist”, which struck me as an unproven assertion at best. In re-reading, this may have done the speaker an injustice.

  28. I think I see. It seems to me that there is a HUGE difference between saying, “An artist ought to be a socialist,” and, “a socialist society will be good for artists.”

  29. I also understood from the lecture that the speaker, Walsh, was putting forth the point that Art *should not* be judged within the political spectrum, and that people that thought it should be, or that art should be confined to the political or social spectrum, didn’t really understand Art.

    He quoted a lot of people who believe that art should reflect politics, but his entire point was why these people were wrong.

  30. Indeed. I’m very much inclined to agree that a socialist society will be good for artists. I just don’t think the USSR is a good example of a socialist society. Though it was of course founded on a socialist basis, the system was very quickly corrupted and perverted to the point that artistic freedom was utterly destroyed. Without artistic freedom, consideration of art as a vehicle or pathway for the truth is a bankrupt notion.

    In the actual historical state, the one that exiled and killed Trotsky, the one that slaughtered millions of its own people, and deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world as a technique for maintaining its modalities of oppression and corruption, art became little more than a form of propaganda, a servant of the Big Lie. It rubs me very much the wrong way to read someone claiming that in fact art flourished in this regime, especially when by all accounts it did not.

  31. Caliann: Okay, good. Then I’m not crazy.

    Miramon, it sounds like you are simply restating his point. He talks at length of the damage done to art by that regime in the same terms you are using. When he speaks of a (limited) renaissance in art, he is speaking of the period from 1918 to 1923 or 24, before the Stalinist regime. Unless you believe that Lennism and Stalinism are identical, or the former must lead to the latter? In that case, we differ strongly, but that is probably a discussion for another occasion.

  32. Oh, you are definitely crazy, Steve, you simply aren’t delusional in this respect. ~winks and smiles~

  33. As I mentioned before, I don’t disagree with many of the author’s points. I can disagree with him in some areas without making a polemical strawman out of the whole thing.

    By the way, I’m afraid that many of the artists on that list did plenty of their work under Stalin. But that point aside, let’s focus on the period prior to Stalin’s takeover.

    I do believe that Leninism as a political theory and program is radically different from Stalinism. There is no definite link between Leninism as theory and Stalinism as theory; indeed the two systems are opposed to one another. Sadly, however, in the actual event, one did lead to the other. This was a failure of praxis, and I’m afraid it was Lenin’s failure because a stronger, more honorable, and more worthy governmental system would have prevented Stalin from seizing power in the factional disputes following Lenin’s illness and death.

    Had there been no personal illness, no unrest, no civil war, no foreign influence attempting to restore the old government, Lenin’s polity might well have done much better, even during those brief 5-7 years.

    However, during that period, there was in fact a civil war, all kinds of factionalism and disputes amongst the newly empowered party members, general civil disorder of all kinds, and there were many horrible events and horrible outcomes of official policy. However much Lenin might have wanted to encourage the arts during this period, I feel sure he had other things to worry about. During this very 5 years, the Cheka was formed with its casual approach to execution without recourse to any court system, preparing the way for the even worse excesses of the GPU and NKVD. The official Red Army journals during this period often advocated wholesale slaughter of revisionist elements, and many such slaughters and lynchings took place. Members of the bourgeois and noble classes who had actually supported the revolution were killed left and right or forced into a new round of exile. None of this is to Lenin’s credit, even if it’s likewise not all his fault.

    So even with considerable sympathy toward’s Lenin and Trotsky’s theory and principles during that time, the actual results were dreadful, even prior to Lenin’s illness. It’s not all down to them, to be sure, but Stalin didn’t take over in a vacuum; existing conditions allowed his rise, and those conditions are to a very considerable extent the fault of the previous leadership.

    So yeah, I do say that the arts didn’t flourish under Lenin, and moreover that they practically fell into a dark age compared to the previous otherwise rotten Tsarist century, which just happened to provide more encouragement and more freedom to artists.

  34. Miramon: All right; I’m going to leave things there for now. Much of what you say I agree with. The broader issues we can discuss another time; preferably over scotch.

  35. “So, how does Orson Scott Card fit into this?”

    ‘…he doesn’t?…’

    A good socialist society would encourage him to pursue his art?

    The art itself takes precedent over social messages, political stands, etc?

Leave a Reply