Folk Art and Stalinism

Louis Proyect: My friend Paul Buhle wrote me a cryptic note in response to the first item I posted on Guilbaut that the Jewish question looms behind the ascendancy of Jackson Pollock and the decline of Pop Front culture.

I assumed that the reference to the Jewish question was ironic. Most Australians wouldn't recognize a Jew if he or she, as they say, popped up in their porridge.

Australian culture has (in a way not entirely dissimilar to American culture) been profoundly oriented toward other places, primarily Europe. The parallels can be notable, such as the disappearance of Germanness in the society in response to two wars, a phenomenon very similar to the same disapearance (relatively speaking) of Germanness as an element of midwestern culture---with the difference that I am not aware of German place names being changed in the midwest as they were in South Australia and Victoria, leaving us with such names as a wine called Chateau Yalldara.

Frank Lloyd Wright once complained that Americans believe that all culture came from Europe and that they didn't want to know about it coming from the midwest. The same complaint has been made by Australian artists. It is because of the historical and geographic uniqueness of Australia (the old tyranny of distance routine) that has caused the issue of "foreign influence" to be particularly important in the face of a highly restricted national identity. It was a fellow named Milty who said to me inthe Legion Club one night that something (whatever we were discussing at the time) was true for "Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, and even regular white peole." But it was the same Milty who opined (this time at the RSL) that Australia was really changing and he offered as evidence the fact that spaghetti was commonly available and no longer thought to be exotic.

This was all shortly after Blue Poles was purchased for the Opera House at a controversially high price. That event itself was the catalyst for an extensive debate over artistic priorities and identity. It was also just before the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government and, thus, in a relatively progressive and optimistic period. It was shortly after that that the issue of immigration became truly controversial and problematic with the appearance of the boat people on the northern shore. If you compare the influence of the recent, largely Asian, immigration, and its impact on Australian society you find that the intervention of foreigners has indeed been profound.

What is interesting, and to my way of thinking a trifle sad, is that there was once a genuine and profound democratic rebelliousness in Australian culture which survives in certain attitudes. Australian school children, for example, take it as their right to nip constantly at the heels of authority, but when confronted by that authority they will immediately fold all resistance in contrast to American students who are more likely to challenge you directly. An Englishman once complained that the Australians had become the most conformist people in the world and only maintained the old myth of the classless Australian society because you don't have to assert class unless it is challenged.

I hope this clarifies the matter, or perhaps I'm getting pedantic again and need to go out and slap myself.

"Don't put no constrictions on the people. Leave 'em da hell alone. Jimmy Durante

James N. Stewart (501) 253-8039


"The enthusiasm for studying folklore, transcribing folk songs, identifying with "the folk" as the true root of society -- all of this goes back to Grimm and has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with Stalin, who really disdained non-Russian cultures and probably all culture. Many American communists shared this concern with folklore and it was genuine: they understood that poor people in the backwoods, and in cities, have some very important things to show and tell us, particularly in music, and that these folk are to be honored and respected as the poorest and generally most oppressed sector of the working class. Folk songs were the main art form of the radical movement, and many or most radical songwriting drew heavily on folk songs. Great blues and folk singers and calypsonians sang and played at most radical gatherings. Have you heard of the Almanac Singers, the hootenannys? Don't belittle all this, please."

No, but actually there are two points here: 1: Stalin did in fact at times encourage the study and collection of flok music and there is something of a history of Soviet folklore studies shifting and changing with the variations in party lines. I don't have this material at hand, but I can get you the reference.

2. The American folksong movement was quite heavily influenced by the radical left. Pete Seeger recently described himself as a Luxenbourgian Communist (Press Club, last winter) and was, you will recall, one of those called before McCarthy--who wanted to know, amongst other things, about the song, "If I Had a Hammer" originally written for a Communist Party rally in 1947. The editor of Sing Out! was (is?) a communist by his own description (talk at Indiana University in 1991) . One could also mention Robeson and others despite their fairly tenuous connection to folksong. They did understand that the poor often have something to say, but (to be fair) they did not exactly draw uncritically upon the reservoir of tradition. The folksong revival was intensely political and deeply divided on political grounds. At least som of this was self consciously communist although the direct influence of stalin was probably insignificant outside of the Soviet academic circles. Incidentally, in retrospect the Grimm brothers were more responsible for folklore as an instrument of nationalism (or racism if you prefer, the two are more or less synonymous in European romantic nationalism) than as an instrument of class solidarity, a task largely brought into the folk revival scene in the folk revival of the twentieth century.

"Don't put no constrictions on the people. Leave 'em da hell alone. Jimmy Durante

James N. Stewart (501) 253-8039


Jim is right to say that folklore studies goes back to the Brothers Grimm and the German Historical School. Incidentally, Marx wrote on the Historical School, in an early review of Savigny:

'The shibboleth that the historical school has adopted is the sturdy of sources, and they have carried this love of sources to such an extreme that they advise the captain not to sail his boat on the river but at its source'. Early Texts, Oxford, 1979, ed D McLellan, p 31

This Historical School was the norm when Kautsky was a student, explaining his tendency to get things wrong according to Engels, who wrote to Bebel on 24 July 1885:

'His youthful inclination to hasty judgement has been still more intensified b the wretched method of teaching history in the universities - especially the Austrian ones. The students there are systematically taught to do historical work with materials which they know to be inadequate, but which they are supposed to treat as adequate, that is to write things which they must know to be false but which they are supposed to consider correct.'

The Historical School that Marx and Engels railed against was the academic compliment to that movement of romantic Nationalism that turned the German middle classes away from liberalism and towards dreams of a primordial Volkish spirit at work in the black forest. It was the cultural nationalism that Fichte and Herder galvanised against the French, and especially there claim to represent the liberal spirit. The turn towards folk history did lead to some good historical research, but it also led to a lot of racial myths. So Winkelmann's researches on Ancient Greece became grist to the mill that churned out myths of an Aryan race.

The common link between the folk art culturalism of the German romantics and Stalinism, was this: Just as the European Enlightenment foundered on the rock of nationalism, creating a rift between France and Germany, so too did the Communist International founder on the rock of national division, in the theory of 'socialism in one country'. As Stalin's Russia turned inward for its resources, instead of outwards towards world revolution, it drew on the more atavistic elements of Russian culture. Folk art was source of national pride, a resource that could mobilise popular sentiment. Like the German romantics before them, the Stalinists were mobilising an ideal of national Genius, in place of a more universal internationalism.

The impact of the lionisation of folk culture, and the re-orientation of communists towards cultural sources of sustenance, was actually a sign of their lowered horizons. Folk songs were a compensation for political activity. And, as the history of the Communist Parties indicates, they were also compatible with the less attractive aspects of petty nationalism that so severely marred the political orientation of Stalinism.

Jim Heartfield


Just to clarify a point made in passing I consulted a couple of secondary sources to refresh the memory without excavating the book pile behind me and it appears that at the time of the revolution there was respectable folklore scholarship taking place in Russia of the ballad collecting sort. Apparently some years later someone in Moscow noticed that the scholars of the time were using something like gesunkene kulturgut (the proposition that folk culture is derived from higher cultural forms) as a theoretical model. Decrees were made to the effect that folklore was the product of the creative genius of the people (or the folk, the terms being identical in Russian) and so the theoretical base was changed. Apparently this led to a lot of literary reinterpretation of traditional material and later to the conscious development of new material and adapting older material to the needs of the moment. Apparently (according to Dorson) a translation of a Russian article appeared in the Journal of the Folklore Institute in 1963 in which the American folklore scene was described in terms of a dialectic of progressives (exemplified by Erwin Silber at Sing Out!) and the reactionaries (exemplified by Richard Dorson).

That dichotomy (whether dialectic or not) still exists, but is seen as the distinction between the Lomax-Library of Congress collect-and-encourage folklore and the academic discipline model developed, in large part, by Dorson and others at Indiana. The latter was very little concerned with the folk song revival or the attendant political concerns, except, perhaps, as subjects of study.

The politics of the folk song revival are a related and very intersting matter that has never been entirely documented in that there while there was a right wing/left wing split, perhaps represented by the Pete Seeger/ Burl Ives unpleasantness, there were also divisions reflecting a popular/purist dialectic which produced an extraordinary richness of material in the fifties and sixties. This was problematic for those whose sentiments were both lestist and purist but there was considerable material in the mining regions of the Appelacians where some vehement anti-capitalist performers were found such as Aunt Molly Jackson and Sara Ogan Gunning (I believe it was the latter who wrote the famous lines, "I am a miner's daughter/ I'm sure I wish you well/ Let's sink this capitalist system/ To the lowest pits of hell.) This all wanders off into various paths we could explore, but it is important to keep in mind, as Archie Green once said to his first folklore class at the University of Illinois, not all folklore is noble and uplifting, most of it is dull, vulgar, and common, that is the nature of the subject.

It is curious to note in this regard that despite the commercial success of "world music" as a sales genre there is remarkably little interest in the purist approach to folk music today. Large numbers of Irish records are produced, but they are all in a sort of Celtic Bluegrass (if you will allow the term) which has been developed by the record companies.

James Stewart