Monas, Sidney. Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic. - CLIO, Spring 1993 v22 n3 p291(5)
(By Regine Robin. Translated by Catherine Porter. Foreword by Leon Robel. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992..)

Having appeared in French in 1986, Regine Robin's magisterial work on Socialist Realism was substantially written before perestroika. This motivates two prefatory pieces not in the original. There she conjures up an image of herself forty years ago as a small girl in braids going to the movies in Paris, "red belt" to see Chapaev, singing "Pioneer" songs and identifying with the heroines of Soviet novels. "I always knew whom I should identify with and whom I should fight.... It was a happy childhood in which fairies were replaced by Lenin and his warriors, Stalin and his builders!" Of course, the Twentieth Party Congress soon came along and she began to learn better. Yet there is more nostalgia here than bitterness, for all the disillusionment. She refuses, she says, to turn her back on that little girl in braids.

This personal note contrasts oddly with the language of discourse-analysis in heavy use through much of the book. One cannot help contrasting the dramatic sense of existential involvement expressed in the foregoing (and occasionally throughout the book), with the high level of abstraction in the conceptual tools she proposes to use:

To help us grasp this imbrication of symbol-images and metadiscursive assertions, a certain number of conceptual tools will be useful: for example, the notion of "discursive complex" ... the notion of social discourse ... the notion of "domain of memory" ... the notion of "sociogram" ... the notion of "ideologem" ... and that of "discursive base" ... along with the notion of "sociotextual concretion." These diverse concepts have not been produced within a single epistemological framework, needless to say, but they are not mutually exclusive. Given a certain type of articulation, they can point toward a theory of transdiscursivity and of interdiscursivity in a given society, both synchronic and diachronic.

It is not my intention to ridicule an arcane vocabulary, but only to point out its distancing effect from the little girl in braids who sincerely thrilled to Stalinist fiction and films. She does crop up occasionally and not too obtrusively in the text, in several remarks, for instance, to the effect that Stalin did after all in some sense "represent the little people," and in Robin's only slightly mitigated enthusiasm for the organizational drive of the five-year plans. The distance is perhaps lent some additional pathos by an overly literal translation which does nothing to break up very long French sentences and paragraphs, and uses calques like "pretirition" and "denegation" instead of "references to the past," and "denial."

The idea that Stalin and his shifting immediate circle were really responding to something at least resembling "public opinion," representing something at least faintly resembling what we call "civil society," even as late as 1937, has more prominence in this book than allows me comfort. I don't believe it. Nor do I believe that the fatal mistake of the Writers, Congress of 1934 was the imposition of "an impossible aesthetic," rather than the imposition of any aesthetic at all. I might well find a constructivist-futurist-formalist aesthetic more to my taste and more consistent with the aims of a genuine cultural revolution. Andrei Siniavsky (Abram Tertz) in his brilliant essay of 1959, "On Socialist Realism," to which Robin is acknowledgedly indebted, ironizes on this theme. Robin's American publisher somehow suggests it, too, by substituting an abstract constructivist design on the jacket (and for the beginning-chapter page design) for the vintage 1930s Soviet poster that appeared on the cover of the French edition. Robin powerfully suggest that, given the centrality of literature to Russian culture and the ambitious scope of the cultural revolution, the mobilization and integration of cultural forces by means of an officially established aesthetic was inevitable. And indeed, even Trotsky, as early as 1924, suggested that sooner or later the Party would have to intervene among the contending literary factions and establish an aesthetic. I am prepared to admit that, given the nature of the Party, this was so. Robin would have preferred a more flexible aesthetic, one with room for polysemy and irony, for parody and paradox. Yet none of the contending schools were free of a certain totalizing impulse, relatively innocent as long as there were contenders, but potentially sinister given power. The problem, it seems to me, was not the "impossibility" of the aesthetic (though Robin's analytic logic is sufficiently impressive on this score) but the imposition of any aesthetic by political command.

Of course, Robin is at pains to show that Socialist Realism was not imposed by political command alone. Her focal point is the Writers, Congress of 1934, but in order to explain the significance of what transpired there, she attempts to interpret the entire burden of the Russian (and Soviet) literary past as, she believes, it was carried into the debates of the Congress. Although certain aesthetic modes had been "politically" precluded from discussion--modernism, formalism, Freudianism--and were simply pronounced upon, and some kind of "realism" seemed the inevitable outcome, the exact nature of that realism was far from a foregone conclusion. There was therefore real controversy at the Congress, which was far from being the monolithic, univocal affair that has sometimes been portrayed. Even the Andrei Zhdanov who spoke so forebodingly at the Congress on behalf of the Party was not the same person who launched the "Zhdanovshchina" in 1946, and even after the Congress, indeed even after the Kirov assassination three months later, some muted traces of heteroglossia remained. So it was only from 1937 to 1941, and again from 1946 to 1954 that Socialist Realism appeared at its most stifling and univocal.

If not entirely persuasive, Robin's analysis is richly erudite and suggestive. Certainly the whole process of the suppression of Russian literature was more complicated than has generally been acknowledged. It is not so much a matter of the unwitting complicity of this or that prominent litterateur as it is of the fundamentally literary nature of Russian culture as a whole. "Beauty will save the world," wrote Dostoevsky, implying of course that it must be the "beauty of the Madonna" and not "the beauty of Sodom." In his pioneer work The Positive Hero in Russian Literature, to which Robin generously acknowledges her debt, Rufus Matthewson traced the concept of the "positive hero," so central to Socialist Realism, to the influential nineteenth-century critics Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobroliubov, and Pisarev, who also figure prominently in Robin's account. She gives, however, a fuller account of the novelists, response to these critics--Turgenev's especially, but also Dostoevsky's anti-heroes and Tolstoy's "truth-seekers." Perhaps her reading of Goncharov's Oblomov is too close to Dobroliubov's and she misses the hero's great aesthetic appeal which, in spite of his tragic and legendary inertia, lies in his disinterestedness and purity of soul. Perhaps she is too quick to accept the self-proclaimed title of Turgenev's "superfluous" (or, as per her translation, "useless") man. Nevertheless, she is undoubtedly right in insisting that Belinsky and Chernyshevsky far more than Marx helped shape the concept of Socialist Realism, that these critics have great weight and influence even among the novelists who most energetically opposed them, and above all that nineteenth-century novelistic practice (as well as the poetic example of Nekrasov) was a powerful presence and reference point at the Writers, Congress.

One may quarrel with some of Robin's readings of literary texts, but they are undoubtedly intelligent and close and worth attending. Unfortunately, in her zeal to demonstrate the preponderance of different kinds of realism in the Russian literary tradition, she gives short shrift to the Symbolist tradition and to Vladimir Soloviev, its founder and mentor. It is at least arguable that during the period from the mid-1890s to 1917 it was the ascendant, perhaps even the dominant tradition, certainly in poetry, since Acmeism and Futurism and even Imaginism were, however overtly hostile, clearly its offshoots. Nor did the prose of the period escape its influence, and here one need not limit one's citations to the remarkable novels of Andrei Bly, but look carefully at the presumably "realistic" works of Chekhov and Gorky. Indeed one might conclude that the prevailing prose tendency well on into the 1920s was an attempt to combine the aesthetics of Realism and Symbolism. Of course this was a direction not taken by Russian literature alone, and such a combination was most brilliantly exemplified in James Joyce's Ulysses. The predetermined exclusion of that work as any kind of exemplar from the Writers, Congress meant much more, therefore, than a rejection of the hermetic or more radically experimental "avant garde" aspect of modernism. It meant the derailment of a major literary line of development. Robin's brief, rather dismissive treatment of the Joyce discussions at the Congress is a serious flaw, given the breadth of her own perspective.

Abram Tertz called Socialist Realism "a loathsome literary salad," pointing out the same inconsistencies--the mixture of Gorkian "revolutionary romanticism" with the nineteenth-century tradition of critical realism--that prompt Robin to call it "an impossible aesthetic." But Tertz correctly perceived that Socialist Realism began to leak at its awkward joints not because of its inconsistencies but because of Stalin's mortality. The Brechtian aesthetic of the agitka plays would not have fared better. The Symbolist aesthetic had its own built-in totalizing tendencies--its own apocalypticism, utopianism, and eschatology; Vladimir Soloviev and Aleksandr Blok could be fetishized as easily as Gorky and Chernyshevsky. Bakhtinian heteroglossia does not lend itself to purposes of large-scale mobilization and organization. What killed Russian literature was not an impossible aesthetic but the regime's monopoly of and multi-faceted control over all means of public expression, reinforced by the use of terror. When Stalin died and terror dwindled and waned, the impossibility became manifest. Another, even a "possible" aesthetic, would have suffered the same fate.

Since the purpose of the Writers, Congress of 1934 was to organize literature into a single Writers, Union and to harness it for the work of political mobilization, the turbulent enthusiasm that Robin describes as the characteristic atmosphere of the Congress was misplaced. The delegates were being asked to preside at the death of Russian literature. The fact that three years later half the delegates vanishedin the purges hardly expunges their appal

In spite of these problems with its perspective, Robin's book is a rich, full, intelligent account of the Writers, Congress of 1934, the establishment of Socialist Realism, its development and fate, and the multi-faceted literary traditions operative in its background. Along with Matthewson's book and Tertz's essay, Katerina Clark's Soviet Literature. History as Ritual and Vera Dunham's In Stalin's Time, it is essential for understanding the complex process of cultural rigor mortis that the Writers, Congress inaugurated. I still hope that Regine Robin will come to better, deeper terms with the faded photograph of that little girl in braids.