Bob Gould, 2002

Stalinism and literary culture, particularly in Australia

Source: Marxmail, December 6, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A while back on Marxmail Dave Riley, a DSP old hand from Brisbane, posted an interesting piece in which he criticised Trotsky’s views on literature because Trotsky didn’t, in his view, make a serious or sympathetic study of Stalinist socialist realism in literature. I reject Riley’s view on these literary questions, and I find it difficult to understand how he could have arrived at them from any assessment of the experience of left-wing literary culture in Australia, which is long and complex.

Firstly, Trotsky’s general view, expressed in Literature and Revolution and in the collection of essays published by Pathfinder Press, Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, generally stands the test of time.

Secondly, the struggle in the 1930s and 1940s of the Marxist writers, intellectuals and others against the Stalinist current in Western literature and in favour of complexity, diversity and modernism, was a necessary one.

In my piece arguing with Keith Windschuttle, I list a large number of the books written about these intellectual upheavals, especially in the US, in the 1930s and 1940s, but I would rely particularly on the work of Alan Wald, especially his book on James T. Farrell, and his very important book The New York Intellectuals.

In general, I stand with James T. Farrell and the more left-wing of the New York intellectuals against the Stalinist literary culture of the 1930s and 1940s, with which I am fairly familiar because this Stalinist literary culture was very influential in the left wing of the labour movement in Australia, and a number of Australian writers became part of this Stalinist literary culture, and they produced an indigenous Australian version of it.

Some of the Communist literary critics of the 1930s, such as Christopher Caudwell and Ralph Fox, produced works of great value, but their work of value is actually contradictory to the main thrust of Stalinist Social Realism. Most of the literature of Stalinist social realism published in the Stalin period in the USSR is bizarre rubbish, and most novels written in the West under the influence of this Stalinist school, with its constant upbeat emphasis on “positive heroes”, are mosly worthless.

The theorising of this school is culturally sterile. I’ve just dug out the classic Western statement of social realism, published in Australia by Current Books in 1952, Howard Fast’s Literature and Reality. This book, along with the cultural criticism of another North American, V.J. Jerome, circulated widely in Australia in Communist Party cultural circles, which were important in Australian cultural life.

Three or four years after he wrote that book, Howard Fast was among those who broke with Stalinism after the 20th Congress of the CPSU and Hungary, and his book about the Communist Party and writers, The Naked God, is of some interest in getting an insight into the internal dynamics of socialist realism.

Some novels produced by Communists in English-speaking countries were of considerable literary and working-class interest and value. Stefan Heym’s Goldsborough, about a strike; and Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland, both avoid the worst aspects of Stalinist social realism to produce something that’s useful, exciting and readable.

That can’t be said for most of the literature of this genre. The engagement of Australian writers with the Communist movement and Stalinism was contradictory and complex. For a start, four left-wing women writers stood out in the 1930s and 1940s, and Drusilla Modjeska wrote a useful book about the four of them. They were Katherine Susannah Pritchard (who remained a Stalinist until she died), Kylie Tennant, Jean Devanny and Eleanor Dark.

Dark was a kind of leftist fellow traveller of the CP, who wrote careful novels of Australian life and history. Kylie Tennant was the most interesting and useful. She was a critical left Social Democrat who fell foul of the CP, but her two political novels, Ride On Stranger and Foveaux and her autobiography, The Missing Heir, provide an indispensable picture of the left of the labour movement in the 1930s.

Jean Devanny was a very good writer, not particularly social realist, and a devoted CP militant who fell foul of the apparatus, was expelled and later rejoined. She actually wrote two versions of an autobiography about her encounter with the Communist Party, which weren’t published until after her death.

The Queensland former ISO academic, the redoubtable Carol Ferrier, has made a veritable small industry out of studying the life of Devanny in a useful and creative way, researching and publishing the autobiography. Carol Ferrier has written and published the major biography of Jean Devanny. Her work on Devanny illuminates and underlines the real conflicts that existed between creative writing and Stalinism.

The Stalinist literary culture in Australia was expressed in the foundation of the magazine Overland, and the Realist Writers Groups in a number of cities, and the long-lived activity of the New Theatre in the arena of drama.

Many Australian left-wing writers, playwrights, actors, musicians and historians were involved in this leftist political culture, which was heavily influenced by Stalinism. There was constant conflict in these circles, particularly over the concept of Stalinist social realism. A large number of important Australian writers emerged in these circles: Frank Hardy, Eric Lambert, Dorothy Hewett, the four female writers already mentioned, John Morrison, Judah Waten, Oriel Gray, Bernard Smith (Australia’s foremost art critic) and a great many others.

Many of these people became enormously influential in Australian cultural life and only a few of them, in their maturity, could be grouped within the framework of social realism, mainly Judah Waten and John Morrison, and Dorothy Hewett and Frank Hardy in their earlier phases. All these people were pretty good writers, and even their social realist output generally transcended the bounds of the positive hero notion. Their key characters, including their key communist characters, tended to be human beings, warts and all.

I was a very young, callow, neophyte of some of these writers, most of whom are now dead, as a member of the Sydney Realist Writers’ Group in the mid-1950s.

I never got to be much of a creative writer because political agitation took over and consumed my life, and most of what I’ve written subsequently has been agitational and political journalism rather than creative writing, although at a late age I may try my hand at the novel we’ve all got in the back of our heads.

Most of these writers privately laughed in despair at the Stalinist model of social realism. The history of their creative conflicts with each other and with the political movement of Stalinism as it evolved is of enormous intrinsic interest.

The three most successful Communist novelists were Eric Lambert, Frank Hardy and Dorothy Hewett. There was a certain rivalry between Lambert and Hardy because they both had early literary successes. Lambert wrote the classic Australian novel of World War II, The Twenty Thousand Thieves, a Rabellaisian book about army life, which was a runaway best-seller because of the way it captured the life of soldiers in the Australian army, and many of them bought the book.

It had something in common with the later book Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. It was hardly Stalinist social realism because it was so irreverent and the people in it weren’t exactly “positive heroes”. Privately, the Stalinist leaders hated it. In 1956 Lambert happened to be in London at the time of the Hungarian uprising and rushed to Hungary, witnessed the uprising and sent back moving and angry reports on the events to Tribune, the CPA paper.

After these were angrily rejected by Tribune, Lambert sent them to the bourgeois tabloid, The Telegraph, which published them. Lambert was drummed out of the Stalinist movement very summarily, with Frank Hardy leading the charge among the writers.

Lambert stayed in Britain, wrote some more novels, and died young in the 1960s. His life has been movingly described by his longtime friend Zoe O’ Leary, in a short biography, A Desolate Market.

Frank Hardy was the mega-success of all Australian Communist writers. His first book, Power Without Glory, was a long, rambling, slightly disjointed book written by committee, so to speak, with the primary political aim of exposing the Grouper Catholic Action movement in the Labor Party, and Hardy contributed his talents in the form of a great grab-bag of sporting, political and other gossip and anecdotage.

Despite its literary defects, this sprawling book captured the atmosphere of working class life over a long period and came at a time when the issues under discussion were reaching a climax in the labour movement.

Power Without Glory became the all-time best-selling Australian political novel, and still finds a wide readership. Hardy then wrote a really bad travelogue about the Soviet Union in 1952, called A Journey Into the Future, which people who want to get a taste of high-Stalinist literary culture should study carefully.

Hardy then had a certain amount of writer’s block, but later started writing books of yarns about Australian life and he showed an enormous talent for this kind of semi-journalistic writing. His yarning became very popular and he became a television personality as the cultural barriers of the Cold War disintegrated in the 1960s. Not very social realist, really.

In the mid-1960s Hardy went to the Soviet Union again, and his outlook began to change. He returned to Australia around the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, took a strong stand against the invasion, and wrote a very moving and useful piece of journalism, The Heirs of Stalin, based on his experiences in the USSR and eastern Europe.

Hardy’s transition to opposition to Stalinism caused enormous conflict in the CPA because those who were still pro-Stalinist resented his point of view, but he had enormous authority among the working class activists who looked to the party, so his shift became the psychological breaking point for many Australian Communists, for which the pro-Stalinists never forgave him.

He took up the cause of Aboriginal rights and wrote a major piece of journalism, The Unlucky Australians about the Gurindji land rights struggle.

Finally, in 1975, he wrote the extraordinary novel of life and political experience in the Communist movement (But the Dead Are Many). His literary device in this novel, “the fugue” is a bit awkward, but the novel, despite that, is the classic literary exploration of Communism and Stalinism in the workers movement in the English-speaking world.

It’s an incomparably useful book for anyone who wants to understand the political, social, human and cultural atmosphere in the Stalinist movement in the mid-20th century, and it stands the test of time.

The paradox is that Hardy,who started out as the classic party writer and who savaged his old colleague Lambert in 1956, ultimately came on the basis of his own experiences to similar views to Lambert, and one hopes they’ve made friends again somewhere in the Marxist Valhalla.

Hardy had many sins, he was a gambler, womaniser, not very good with money, and an occasional plagiarist, all of which is spelled out in some detail in a rather useful if somewhat bitter biography of him by the late Pauline Marshall, but nevertheless the boundaries of his work from Power Without Glory and the Load of Wood, to The Heirs of Stalin, The Unlucky Australians and But the Dead are Many, cover much of the experience of Communism and Stalinism in Australia in the 20th century.

In the mid-1950s, the Realist Writers Groups and other left writers founded a magazine called Overland (“temper democratic, bias Australian”). After the CPA crisis among intellectuals in 1956, when the historian Ian Turner and Steven Murray Smith among other intellectuals left the CPA, Murray Smith, the editor of Overland managed to spirit it out of the hands of the CPA, which caused outrage in CP circles.

Under Murray Smith’s editorship it evolved into a solidly-left-of-centre journal of literature, history and politics and it still exists to this day and plays a useful role culturally and politically for a quarterly magazine.

Ian Turner went on to write a number of useful books of Australian labour and cultural history. Dorothy Hewett, the author of the classic Australian social realist novel, Bobbin Up, went on to become a major playwright and poet, breaking with Stalinism in the late 1960s. The first volume of her autobiography (one hopes the second is in publishable form, because she died recently) is another classic description of the encounter between creative writers and Stalinism.

Another important Australian writer who was “burnt by the sun” of Stalinism in a very direct way was the novelist Christina Stead. Early in her creative life she emigrated to London, and later to the US. In London she took up with the Communist, New York Jewish writer and man of the world, Bill Blech, who wrote under the pseudonym of William Blake.

Stead wrote a wonderful novel about the crisis in French society during the Stavisky Affair, The House of All Nations. William Blake wrote three wonderful novels, one of them The Copperheads, about the US Civil War, and the other two about the evolution of capitalism in Spain. Stead and Blech went to the US and eventually settled in California, where Stead became a Hollywood scriptwriter, mixing in the Communist subculture in Hollywood.

During the McCarthy period they re-emigrated to Britain. At the end of her life Stead wrote an interesting novel about her experiences in the Communist and Stalinist literary world, a complex, long and interesting book, called I’m Dying Laughing. One of the high points of this book is a description of a kind of trial conducted by the Stalinist literary figure generally believed to be John Howard Lawson, within the Hollywood Stalinist literary circle.

Like Hardy’s But the Dead Are Many, I’m Dying Laughing is a useful description of what it was like to be a Communist writer or artist during the 20th century during the cultural dominance of high-Stalinism.

In a recent issue of Overland, possibly conscious of her own impending death, Stead wrote a most moving tribute to the generation of Communist intellectuals of which she was one of the younger members.

All I’ve just written seems to me to indicate the complexity and contradictions involved in too rosy a view of Stalinist social realism, as Dave Riley seems to have, or a too mundane view that Stalinism is now a remote historical question, as Louis Proyect seems to think.

The socialist political novel: those that interest me because of how they illuminate the history of the socialist project

I’d nominate firstly, all the writers I’ve mentioned above. In addition to that I’ve always liked the novels of the anarcho-syndicalist, B. Traven. The whole oeuvre of Victor Serge is of indispensable historical importance to capture the atmosphere of the Russian Revolution in its periods of both upsurge and Stalinist counter-revolution. The Case of Comrade Tulayev is the classic novel of the purges, and could be turned into an extraordinary film by someone like Ken Loach if the necessary funds could be found.

Loach’s classic film, Land and Freedom, based loosely on Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, has done a great deal to demystify the Spanish Revolution.

There are also a number of serious novels of Communist, socialist and Trotskyist experience: Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, Harvey Swados’s Standing Fast, Doris Lessing’s Central African novels and her incomparable feminist book, The Golden Notebook, which has a powerful political aspect. Unfortunately, the Trotskyist movement hasn’t yet produced any classic novels of its experience, other than Standing Fast.

However, there are two pieces of rather brilliant satire, one the Canadian Earl Birney’s book Down the Long Table (with its classic split scene in the room behind Halloran’s grocery in Vancouver) and Tariq Ali’s caustic but extremely entertaining novel, Redemption.

Maybe Richard Fidler, Jose Perez, and Barry Sheppard might get together and write a novel about the US SWP. I’m told on the grapevine that Bryan Palmer is writing a biography of James P. Cannon, and the sooner he finishes it, and it’s published the better. Palmer is the right person to do a sympathetic and useful biography of Cannon. There’s a lot more useful work to be done on our history and experiences, and of necessity some of it should be done by way of the novel.

As an integral part of my bookselling activities I keep a list of about 550 books of Australian labour movement, world labour movement and Marxist interest in print, so to speak. These are mostly books that I’ve initially bought as remainders and are now out of print everywhere else.