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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 events, and found it uncongenial to write directly about them except in verse.

These five, with others like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, Ludwig Renn and Anna Seghers, John Reed and Paul Nizan, wrote works which seem, to anyone whose reading has taken this direction, to hang self-evidently together. The obvious critical question is Why? Mr. Rühle seems too preoccupied with the party political aspect to ask it, but surely the answer lies not so much in communism or any other conscious commitment as in some immediate concern with the great turning points of twentieth-century history.

Such a concern will of course also help to decide the writer’s attitude toward the Communists, in so far as they play any leading part in the relevant episode or issue. The attitude itself, however, need not be one of blind approval, any more than the occasion for it need necessarily be anything resembling revolution. Writers of this type can thus be understood better by seeing where the vital turning points lie than by any alignment according to political views. The two world wars, the revolutions in Russia and China together with their aftermaths, the interwar years in Germany and Italy, the Spanish Civil War, Algeria, Vietnam, the color problem, and the fight against colonialism in India, Africa, and the Middle East: these have all provided extreme situations for writers of whatever nationality or persuasion. To take English instances only, Isherwood and Koestler, and before them Forster and Cary and T.E. Lawrence, could write with an unaffected urgency which their own less hazardously poised country very seldom inspires even in convinced Communists.

On the one hand there is in such subjects an element of the exotic, and to that extent of the unpolitical, which brings this literature closer to a writer like Saint-Exupéry than to the domestic sociological flatness of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. On the other hand there is, running through it (though not through all of it, for instance the novels of Malraux), a plebeian concern with the expressions and behavior of less articulate people which links it with the emergent literature of new classes and nations. Silone, with his love of peasant simplicities, Brecht with his aesthetic of work and his contempt for “those who sat on the golden chairs to write,” Hašek with his penchant for nonliterary models (“cookery books, ancient almanacs, books of practical advice and the most varied specialist magazines,” according to his friend Václav Menger), belong in that antisnob, antimandarin tradition that ran back through Kipling, Mark Twain, and Dickens and threw up such a genuine underdog masterpiece as Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1910). Take all these characteristics together and it will be seen that if these writers have a common creed it is rooted in what has been disparagingly called the “secular trinity” of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And the importance of revolution, led by whatever party, is that, like war to like Camus’s plague, it stretches and tests such ideals, killing them or giving them a new lease of life.

In short, the kind of writing with which Mr. Rühle deals is altogether a larger affair than the boring question of communism or anticommunism to which he keeps reducing it. And the same is true of the aesthetic-political (or kunstpolitisch) background which has helped to give it shape. Here the fluctuating doctrine supported by the Soviet Communist Party is only one element in an interrelated body of ideas and influences that evolved in several countries. For there were at least four main cultural ideologies that led up to the works in question. The French brand can be traced through Balzac and mid-nineteenth-century realism, followed by the socialism of Zola, the urban humanitarianism of Verhaeren (with its anarchist-utopian over-tones), the more liberal variant typified in the group around Romains and Duhamel and in the fictional debates in Malraux’s Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, and the movement for popular culture that was associated with Romain Rolland and the Belgian socialist Émile Vandervelde. The political events which marked and tested this powerful tradition were the reaction after 1848, the Paris Commune and its suppression, the Dreyfus case, and that limited resistance to the First World War whose chief expression lay in Rolland’s essays and Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.

Similarly England (whose literature is virtually ignored in Mr. Rühle’s book apart from scattered references to Shaw and Wells and to the anti-Stalinist writings of Koestler and Orwell) had its own social tradition, exemplified in the mid-nineteenth-century novel, the theoretical writings of Ruskin and Morris, and the movement for the democratization of art and education which followed; though none of this was subjected to any real strain before 1914. Germany too had the undoctrinaire but, alas, too fragmentary opinions of Marx and Engels as well as the aesthetics of Franz Mehring to serve as guidelines for the most coherent and all-embracing socialist movement in Europe; more important in practice, the modern movement in the arts as it developed there in the immediate postwar years proved to be first antimonarchical, then in the fore-front of the antiwar campaign, then finally so committed to the German revolution of 1918 as to become indelibly identified with the left, in a way that even the most hardened of its politicians could scarcely ignore.

As for the Russians, Gorki’s actual example may have been strong, but the only thinker who mattered internationally in those days was Tolstoy, who was influenced by Ruskin and in turn influenced Rolland. Lunacharsky was enthusiastic about the work of Rolland and Verhaeren and, later, the German Expressionists, while it also seems likely that the embryo Proletkult (or movement for working-class culture) was fired, like the German Werkbund and the corresponding French and German movements, by the ideas of William Morris. Otherwise the Russian tradition before 1917 was a thing apart, without identifiable influence on attitudes elsewhere. Marx and Engels counted for less in its development than the utilitarian and predominantly literary aesthetic theories of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky, which were taken up and reemphasized by the Menshevik leader Plekhanov at the end of the century. In 1905, the year of the abortive revolution, Lenin wrote his article on “Party Organization and Party Literature,” which was later to be interpreted by the Stalinists as laying down the law for all forms of literature (and indeed of art), though, counter to Mr. Rühle’s view, it was meant to apply only to specifically political writing.

What gave this still fluid ideology its universal force was the plain fact of the October Revolution, which inspired certain of the creative artists and confronted them with quite new demands, in a way that was without precedent since 1848, though it was to be repeated in milder form in Germany a year later. This event’s impact, thanks to the noncommittal aesthetic policy practiced by Lenin and his Commissar for Education, Lunacharsky, was at first felt through a variety of channels: the poems of Yesenin and Mayakovsky, the films of Eisenstein, constructivism both pure and applied (with its lasting influence on the Bauhaus), the theatrical experiments of Meyerhold, the stories of Babel, and also the reporting of John Reed.

When around 1930 Stalin, with Zhdanov as his chief aide, took the traditional utilitarian view and fused it with Lenin’s article to make a hard aesthetic party line it was the achievements of the previous twelve years that made the outside world feel it had to listen. This line, with its doctrine of Socialist Realism, soon was taken up by the whole international communist movement, and even today it has been barely modified, though it is now being applied in a more relaxed way in the USSR and virtually abandoned everywhere else. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination the central revolutionary tradition in the arts.

Unfortunately Mr. Rühle wrote this book at the end of the 1950s, so that he oversimplifies obsessively, a process no doubt reflecting the clear-cut nature of his own experience in East Germany under Stalinism, where he was a theater critic and one of the arts editors of the Berliner Zeitung before going to the West in 1955. He judges every writer in relation to Stalinism, scarcely following him beyond his abandonment of that doctrine, which is treated each time as some kind of achievement. Similarly at the close of the book, where the chapters acquire such headings as “Renouncing the Red God” and “The Revolutionary Wave Recedes,” the Berlin Congress for Cultural Freedom of 1950 comes like a splendid happy ending.

It is a dated view, to say the least, and all the more so since a number of the most urgent and inspiring issues of the past two decades are never discussed at all: liberation and revolt in the developing countries, the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, or the all-important color question. Even in those areas where the party line did predominate, Mr. Rühle is a disappointing guide, paying little attention to the history of the various Communist-led writers’ and artists’ organizations in different countries, and their still obscure mechanics, and giving a misleading picture of the magic doctrine itself.

For the point about Socialist Realism is not just that it insisted on the right political content, but that it made this secondary to the use of conventionally acceptable aesthetic forms. It is thus quite untrue to say, as Mr. Rühle does, that an original and imaginative novelist like Anna Seghers was closer to orthodoxy than the more conservative Lukács, whatever that thinker’s (political) lapses since their argument in the Moscow German-language press thirty years ago. This would have become evident had Mr. Rühle looked at the position of Picasso, or mentioned those bourgeois novelists whom the Russians found admirable (Böll, Greene, Mauriac, etc.) at a time when the work of committed communists like Brecht was still in cold storage for formal reasons.

His approach is foot-slogging, one writer after another, from Gorki and Rolland to Hlasko and Déry, being dealt with by summarizing and quoting from one or two key works, so that a good deal of the book is like a catalogue. Roughly a third of it is devoted to Russia and a third to Germany; the rest is a ragbag of France, Italy, China (each of which rates a chapter), and such miscellaneous writers as Lorca, O’Casey, Nexö, Laxness, and Istrati. In the original German edition of 1960 the balance was marginally better, since it also contained two chapters on the United States and Latin America. These have now been cut, on the ostensible grounds that “excellent and detailed studies on these themes are already available in English,” but in fact they were inadequate enough to have shaken our confidence in the rest of the book; and even now we read of Isherwood as an Oxford poet and Auden as having fought in Spain and China and, as a pilot, in the Second World War.

Four chapters have also been cut from the German section, this time about writers on whom there is nothing available in English, such as Ernst Niekisch, Egon Erwin Kisch, the excellent Renn, and some lesser East Germans; part of this material has been telescoped into other chapters. In exchange we have been supplied with fresh or partly fresh chapters summing up each of the three sections, a chapter on the not entirely unfamiliar but largely incongruous subject of Thomas Mann, and the whole of the polemical chapter on Brecht from Mr. Rühle’s earlier book Das Gefesselte Theater (1957).

As the rather more charitable Brecht chapter from the present book has also been kept in as an unassimilated appendage to the other, roughly a tenth of Mr. Rühle’s study is now concerned with this one writer. Against that, such authors as Nizan, Nezval, Gramsci, Fallada, Ernst Fischer, Tretiakoff, Stil, Garaudy, Sillitoe, Bezru Attila Jozsef, and Macdiarmid are not discussed at all.

The writing itself lapses at times into the language of the cold war. Brecht is a “G.D.R. scribe” who acceded to “the poet laureateship of the Court of Pankow.” Ulbricht is a “German Quisling”; (Thorez, in the German edition, having been “the French Ulbricht”). The translation too has its inelegances (e.g., “Neither is modern mass democracy…able to serve up the thunderous pathos of human liberation….”) but these matter less than the number of small mistakes, some of which are positively misleading. Not only is the adverb “sicher” translated “doubtless” throughout (which is not at all the same thing as “undoubtedly,” at least in English usage), but it now seems that the Weimar Republic was founded in 1923, that Brecht’s Mahagonny was a gold prospectors’ town, that Aimé Césaire is a mythical figure and O’Casey a descendant of Swift—all by no fault of the author.

On the other hand considerable care has been taken to match the many quotations from the key works referred to with the available Englishlanguage editions, while the absence of source references in the original German has been usefully corrected. There is also a valuable eleven-page bibliography, which has likewise been Anglicized where possible.

The main trouble with such works of cultural Kremlinology is that the attitude of distaste which characterizes them, veering at times to undisguised hatred, is all very well for analyzing the sins of politicians and police (the men we love to hate), but not a very sympathetic approach to the arts. A critic must have some spontaneous feeling for the works of art about which he is writing if he is to be worth reading at all. This is perhaps not so true of the literary historian, who can illuminate the social, biographical, and organizational background without regard for his own likes and dislikes, so long as he treats the subject objectively. But in the present case the author’s concern is primarily with the works themselves and with showing that any procommunist element in them is misguided and pernicious. It is difficult indeed not to conclude that this missionary aspect of the book is the real motive for its belated publication in English.

And yet for all Mr. Rühle’s crudities and lack of balance, he still has a half-stifled admiration for the works he is dealing with, which he clearly feels have a weight and a force not to be found in the great mass of reputable contemporary writing. This he does communicate, and it is what gives his book its special interest for the ordinary reader. For so far as I know there is no other study which even begins to show the extent and variety of such literature, or conveys the sharpness which it has acquired from rubbing, however painfully, against political realities (which include ham-fisted party dictation in the arts).

The appeal of this subject is not just that the revolutionary context is one of the few in which literature is agreed, by both sides, to matter. Like the formal conventions against which the great innovators of our century rebelled, it also provides the artist with apparently fixed certitudes to kick against or struggle through in order to make his own way. The fact is that the fight for freedom and independence calls for some of humanity’s finest qualities, and does so on the artistic as well as on the political level. The reason why the result is so impressive (on both levels) is that we have not, alas, found out how to engage those qualities equally fully once freedom and independence have been won, whether from political oppression or from conventional aesthetics.

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