Revolutionary Aesthetics

Literature and Revolution: A Critical Study of the Writer and Communism in the Twentieth Century

by Jürgen Rühle, translated and edited by Jean Steinberg
Praeger, 520 pp., $12.50

Literature and Revolution is hardly an unfamiliar combination of words. Half a century ago Trotsky wrote an important book under that title, followed in 1932 by Victor Serge’s Littérature et Révolution and soon after by a speech on the same theme by Gide. For all of these, but particularly for Trotsky, it was reasonable to concentrate on the revolution in hand and the pressing problem of the new Communist Party’s relation to the arts. Since then, however, the problem has become a very much wider one, and its purely Soviet or communist aspects have begun to recede in importance.

First, dating largely from the 1930s, a substantial body of literature in many languages exists reflecting revolutionary or otherwise extreme social situations and including some of the major works of our century. Secondly, we can now look with greater detachment at the tradition from which this springs, and see that official communist aesthetics are only one slightly eccentric part of it. The only area where the Communists still demand our full attention concerns the mechanism of artistic coordination, dissemination, and control, and its effect on writers, though even here the growth of state patronage under other systems may yet raise comparable, if less acute, problems.

If we take the writers of those major works whose presence is likely to prove the main attraction of Mr. Rühle’s account of this theme, the nature and degree of their revolutionary experience differ widely, as does the part played by the Communist Party in it. Malraux, for instance, was a highly intellectual man of action in the T. E. Lawrence tradition, who cooperated with the Communists (and also the anarchists and the republicans) in the Chinese and Indochinese revolutionary movements and the Spanish Civil War; in his own country he made public appearances as an anti-Nazi writer, but only became politically active after breaking with the Communists, and never wrote about it with the immediacy and passion which foreign causes inspired in him.

Silone, who was a leading Communist in his twenties, representing the underground Italian party at Comintern meetings, left that party the year Fontamara appeared, and has been a socialist for three-quarters of his adult life. Hašek joined the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party early in 1918 and then spent nearly three years as a political commissar in the Fifth Red Army, but he had previously been a largely antipolitical anarchist, and on his return to Prague he again dropped out, dying of drink while still publishing and hawking Schweik in monthly parts. The mysterious B. Traven, all of whose books except The Death Ship are set in Mexico, had no known Communist affiliation or active experience of politics, though there is a German legend (subscribed to in the original edition of Mr. Rühle’s book) that he was mixed up in the Munich Soviet of 1919. Brecht alone remained a loyal Communist from about 1929 to the end of his life; yet he was never a party member, took no part in political…

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