A defense of Stalinist art policy

Critics of Stalinist policy towards the arts have difficulty admitting what is actually obvious: that despite the supposed philistinism, bloodthirstiness, stupidity, evil-mindedness and malice of Stalin and his 'henchmen', the Soviet Thirties saw the greatest outpouring of works of art, theatre, literature, film, music, sculpture and architecture in Russian history. This takes some explaining: the tally of major 20th century works in any field of culture (symphonic works, novels, paintings, films etc) shows a high number of works created in the Soviet Union under High Stalinism.

It is said that under the rubric of Socialist Realism Stalin inflicted a cruel and stultifying regime on the fine arts, which engendered easel-painting and sculpture of generally second-rate dullness and awful, servile conformity. These defects are said to be matters of principle and outweigh any conceivable theoretical gains which in any case are lacking in the fine arts (compared to cinematography etc). It is usually added that it is no excuse to point out that actually some of the stuff was rather good: since we do not applaud the Borgias because their rule happened to coincide with the flowering of Renaissance art, we should not indulge Stalin's excesses either. In civilised (bourgeois) society artists and the consumers of their work are each allowed to do their thing in serenity and personal security. Stalin's 'Terror' did not permit this. The Party stood between artist and viewer, subjecting both to its baleful gaze.

Stalin's policy towards the arts is therefore to be opposed on two general grounds. First, no-one (least of all a jackbooted commissar personifying the absolute state) has the right to mediate between the artist and his/her viewer. Second, the sovereignty of the individual and the right to live free from fear in a law-governed society, is more fundamental even than the right of the state to survive. Stalinist repression and policing of the arts is 'barbaric' and 'unconscionable' [but one justification for Stalin's policy towards Russian artists might lie in comparing it with Hitler's and then trying to judge whether Stalin's policy helped or hindered the Soviet state in its attempt to prevent Hitler carrying _his_ policy out].

It is not just a matter of the Stalinist liquidation of the avant-garde and their substitution by the alleged aridities of socialist-realism. The real issue is more serious and universal: freedom of expression versus the interests and rights of the state. The Bolsheviks arrogated the right to subordinate art to politics, meaning, to the creation of their dictatorship. Still more heroically, Lenin even wanted not merely to use art for his own purposes but to insist theoretically that art could not even be art unless it served those purposes.

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