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International Socialism, Autumn 1978


Andrew Collier

Partisanship and realism in art

A reply to Ian Birchall


From International Socialism, 2:2, Autumn 1978.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The title of Ian Birchall’s article The Spectre of Zhdanov (International Socialism, 2:1) suggests that he might have intended to exorcise this spectre. But the few anecdotes he tells about Stalinist stupidities, and his insistence that the party which the committed writer serves must be democratic not bureaucratic, are far from enough to do so. In fact he only succeeds in clothing the spectre again in flesh and blood. For he claims that:

The criticism of Zhdanovism, then, is not a criticism of form (that he tried to impose political ideas on literature) but one of content (that he did this in the name of anti-working-class politics). (Birchall, The Spectre of Zhdanov, in International Socialism, 2:1, p. 74)

It would be strange indeed if such a deeply repressive and mystifying ideology as Stalinism (of which Zhdanovism was the cultural manifestation), didn’t have any effects on the ‘form’ of the relation of art to politics, as well as on the political content of art. The cultural policy of a workers’ democracy, one might hope, would be to realize the best possible conditions for free artistic production and consumption, rather than to establish political control of art (without prejudice to the right which any government must claim in conditions of civil war: to suppress enemy propaganda, even if it masquerades as art). According to Trotsky:

In the hottest years of the civil war, it was clear to the leaders of the revolution that the government could, guided by political considerations, place limitations upon creative freedom, but in no case pretend to the role of commander in the sphere of science, literature and art. (Culture and the Soviet Bureaucracy, in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 96)

These limitations, says Trotsky, are to be seen as a ‘temporary evil’. The tendency of the revolution is towards a society in which:

Personal relations, science and art will not know any externally imposed ‘plan’, nor even any shadow of compulsion. To what degree spiritual creativeness shall be individual or collective will depend entirely upon its creators, (ibid.)

Ian Birchall however criticises western Communist parties as ‘liberal’ for coming round belatedly to just such a position as Trotsky’s. It is perhaps necessary to point out that all Marxists before Stalin without exception used to claim that socialism would lead (even in transitional phases) to more liberty than ‘liberalism’, not less. The identification of personal and cultural liberties with liberalism is a clever propaganda trick used by both liberals and Stalinists in their attacks on workers’ democracy. It is odd to hear the same cliche coming from a revolutionary Marxist.

But Birchall’s main aim, I take it, is not to defend political control of literature in a post-revolutionary society (though he certainly leaves the door open for this). Rather, he makes out a case for a conception of art as a consciously political contribution to the class struggle, organised by the party. This sounds plausible enough in the limited context from which he starts: the party having to ‘turn out a flood of posters, cartoons, films, etc". Obviously, it is better if these are done well (in an artistic sense) than badly. But Birchall generalises this into a theory of artistic production as a straightforwardly political activity. On p. 68 he tells us that art is not to be judged by its own standards. He derives this from an out-of-context quote from Trotsky, from which it certainly doesn’t follow: ‘Art is one of the ways in which man finds his bearings in the world.’ Art indeed is intimately connected with all sorts of other human activities, but Birchall simply reduces it to a form of one type of human activity – politics. Hence art which is not ‘ours’ is presumably to be treated as ‘theirs’ and condemned as bad art on political grounds:

the superstructure is not a mirror of reality, it is an arena of combat. Books, songs, posters, just like political organisations, are weapons in the war of classes. Both sides can use them, well or badly. (Birchall, op. cit., p. 70)

It is easy to see the appeal of this view to a new convert to revolutionary politics, who is trying for the first time to understand the relation of art to politics: ‘our art is good and their art is bad’, just as our guns are good and their guns are bad. It is all very obvious, simple and undialectical – exactly like the ‘crude and unthinking communism’ to which Marx refers in his Manuscripts of 1844. (Early Writings, p. 346) So it is worth looking at the writings of the great Marxist leaders – of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky – about creative literature. I hope it goes without saying that these sources should not be treated as authorities, valid for all time. Rather I want to show how far Birchall’s view of what is ‘Marxist’ is still marked by Stalinist distortions of Marxism. We shall see that Birchall’s central mistake which allows him to believe his theory of art is Marxist, is his pair of alternatives: ‘mirror of reality/arena of combat’, with his supposition that art (that very peculiar part of the superstructure), can’t be both.

Marx and Engels

From all accounts of Marx’s life, he seems to have had such a passionate devotion to literature, and such wide tastes in it, that one wonders how he found time for his life’s work. Birchall however presents us with a single instance, and dismisses it unceremoniously:

Now it is a well-known fact that Marx and Engels were great admirers of the French novelist Balzac, and that Balzac, far from being sympathetic to the working class, was a highly reactionary Catholic monarchist who thought the Revolution of 1789 was the worst thing that had ever happened to France. But too much should not be made of this. We can always learn by studying the ideological productions of the enemy, and a novelist may speak more honestly than a politician or economist. (Birchall, op. cit., p.72)

It is difficult to see how anyone (even someone ignorant of their work) could really believe that Marx or Engels read Balzac to find out how reactionaries thought: that mode of reading would be quite incompatible with admiring him as a novelist. This would have been clear enough to Trotsky:

if we, while today approaching other works of medieval literature merely as objects of study, approach The Divine Comedy as a source of artistic perception,, this happens not because Dante was a Florentine petty bourgeois of the thirteenth century but, to a considerable extent, in spite of that circumstance. (Class and Art, in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 68)

However Birchall can’t be ignorant of Engels’ letter to Margaret Harkness, as he quotes it; his disregard of its evidence on the nature of Marx’s and Engels’ appreciation of Balzac is therefore inexcusable. It is worth quoting this letter at some length, as the view of the relation between art and politics which it expresses could not be further from Birchall’s.

I am far from finding fault with your not having written a point-blank socialist novel, a ‘Tendenzroman’ (problem novel – ed.), as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the authors. That is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passes, presents et a venir (past, present, and yet to come – ed.), in La Comedie Humaine gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’.

Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply – the nobles.

That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac. (Engels, Letter to Margaret Harkness in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, pp. 90–91)

The point is clear: Balzac was a reactionary; in spite of this he was a great writer; his greatness lay in his realism; and his realism made his novels revolutionary despite his intentions. Great art (more specifically literature) is revolutionary for the same reason that it is great – because it gives us insight into a particular social world, and hence into the contradictions within that world. This idea of realism is central to the attitudes of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to the arts. Infantile disorders aside, it has only been rejected in favour of a ‘them and us’ attitude by those Marxists who have had something to hide – who have found a politically controlled literature safer than one which might tell the truth.

However a note on the term ‘realism’ is necessary here, as Zhdanov after all called his norm ‘socialist realism’. By this phrase he meant art which resembled nineteenth century realism in form, but which made ‘socialist’ (state-capitalist) propaganda, however many lies that required. Marxists ought to use the term ‘realism’ in a sense wide enough to include, for instance, surrealism, and those eighteenth and twentieth century novels which make no sharp internal distinction between fantasy and reality, yet which reflect social (including ideological) realities, with their contradictions.

The point of the concept ‘realism’ in a Marxist theory of art should anyway not be to set up a norm and condemn artists who deviate from it. After all, there are art forms such as music which don’t in any sense represent reality, and it would be misguided to lay down in advance that literature must do so. The point is rather to account for the relation of art to politics where such a relation does exist. It is just those art forms which do disclose social realities which have political significance; in other words, it is only insofar as art mirrors reality that it contributes to the class struggle. Stalinist and Maoist ideas about ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ symphonies reflect little more than the dictators’ tastes made into law.


Lenin shows enormous respect for Gorky as a writer, just because he recognises Gorky’s power to influence potential supports of the movement. (Birchall, op. cit., p. 75)

Very good. Lenin also showed enormous respect for Tolstoy as a writer:

To identify the great artist with the revolution which he has obviously failed to understand, and from which he obviously stands aloof, may at first sight seems strange and artificial. A mirror which does not reflect things correctly could hardly be called a mirror. Our revolution, however, is an extremely complicated thing … And if we have before us a really great artist, he must have reflected in his work at least some of the essential aspects of the revolution. (Leo Tolstoy as the mirror of the Russian Revolution in Lenin on Literature and Art, p. 28)

The point is exactly the same as Engels’ point about Balzac. It was not that Tolstoy was a great artist because he was a revolutionary (which he wasn’t) – rather, his novels are revolutionary because, as great art, they reveal the same contradictions in society that necessitate the revolution.

It is interesting to compare Lenin’s ideas about art with those about science. The defenders of ‘proletarian culture’ who aroused Lenin’s wrath defended the same idea of class-relativism in science: they were forerunners of Lysenko as well as of Zhdanov. Lenin restricted himself to a few caustic remarks about their views on art; he wrote a full-length book to refute their views on science (Materialism and Empirio-criticism – probably the best Marxist philosophical work yet written, though certainly the most maligned). The difference between Lenin and the class-relativists (Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, etc.) is the same in both cases: he believed that art and science reflect reality (though in different ways) and are to be judged not by the politics or class origin of their authors, but by the manner in which they reflect reality; and that not only their value as art or science, but their political value, is dependent on their truth (though again, this ‘truth’ means something different in a work of art and in a scientific theory).

As to Birchall’s claim that Lenin made no distinction between creative literature and other forms of writing (for instance, propaganda), this makes Lenin out to be some sort of cretin, failing to see distinctions which are clear enough to most ordinary mortals, as well as being explicitly used by Marx, Engels and Trotsky. [1] The context of the quote used by Birchall to support this interpretation of Lenin shows quite the opposite, for Lenin goes on to say:

we are discussing party literature and its subordination to party control. Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association (including the party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views. Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too. (Party organisation and party literature, in Lenin on Literature and Art, p. 25)

But this must sound like woolly liberalism from the standpoint of Zhdanov and Birchall.


The dismissal of Trotsky’s views on art because he said some silly things about swearing (Birchall, op. cit., p. 73) has all the relevance and fairmindedness of the prosecution case in the Moscow show trials. Trotsky’s position on art, unlike that on swearing, stems from his profound Marxist understanding of historical processes (processes with which art is significantly entwined, while swearing is quite peripheral to them). Trotsky’s point is that culture can’t leap ahead of the social relations of production, but (in spite of Mao) inevitably lags behind them. Great art in particular presupposes a degree of sensitivity of the artist to his or her culture as a whole, which only develops with the maturing of any given kind of social relations. And as socialist relations don’t emerge within bourgeois society, the socialist artist living in a bourgeois society can only produce works which reflect that society, though they are likely to be acutely sensitive to its contradictions. This is why he insists in his talk Class and Art that the term ‘proletarian art’ can be given neither to the work of socialist artists using the modes of expression characteristic of the art of bourgeois society (Demyan Byedny) nor to propaganda poems in revolutionary journals, nor to the productions of the various millenarian artistic sects which were pressing to be given the party’s imprimatur as ‘the art of the future’. And of course the mature art of a classless, communist society would not be proletarian, as there would be no proletariat.

Trotsky’s position on ‘proletcult’ then has nothing to do with the backwardness of the Russian working class (which had after all produced Gorky). It is a consequence of a socialism which is scientific rather than utopian; a socialism, that is, which takes its starting point from the contradictions in that bourgeois society of which all our lives, emotions and ideas are a part, rather than from some imaginary non-capitalist enclave which can supposedly be set up here and now in our socialist hearts, and be kept unspotted from the bourgeois world.

Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky also believed that the best art of bourgeois society would lead by its own inner logic to the rejection of that society. At times he seemed to expect that this would bring artists as individuals into the socialist camp. His manifesto Towards a free revolutionary art (written with Andre Breton and Diego Rivera, and republished in Trotsky on Literature and Art, pp. 115–121) seems to be premissed on this hope. But here it is expected that the artist’s politics will be the result of his or her art, not vice versa. And by recognising that art ‘has its own laws of development’ and that ‘in artistic creation an enormous role is played by subconscious processes – slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance, just because they are subconscious’, he is able to avoid any crude identification of political and artistic virtues, and accept that ‘those writings of Pilniak’s which are closer to communism are feebler than those which are politically further away from us.’ (Class and Art, in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 77)

Finally, though Trotsky’s language makes more concessions to romantic ideas of art as creative expression than is the case with the earlier Marxists, he too recognises that art can have a relation to reality, a relation that, like science though in a different way, can be objective:

A literary work is ‘truthful’ or artistic when the interrelations of the heroes develop, not according to the author’s desires, but according to the latent forces of the characters and the setting. Scientific knowledge differs greatly from the artistic. But the two also have some traits in common, defined by the dependence of the description on the thing described. (Historical objectivity and artistic truth, in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 93)


Why should we prefer the view of art held by the classical Marxists, rather than Birchall’s view?

In the first place, Birchall’s view means consigning much not only of the best art, but of the most socially critical art, to the enemy. Lenin, as we have seen, valued Tolstoy’s novels not only as art but as exposures of the contradictions of Tsarist society. They are great art not merely in addition to the accuracy of their portrayal of these contradictions, but because of it. Any great writer who portrays a particular social reality inevitably exposes contradictions in it – otherwise he or she would not be a great writer. A work of art which disguised these contradictions would be shallow, sentimental, and hence – bad art.

This view (that of the classical Marxists, if I have understood them rightly), doesn’t impose any external political constraints on the writer; but it does show the inner connection between the political and artistic value of a novel. The Zhdanov-Birchall view on the other hand leaves us with two unconnected, and peculiarly trite, criteria of excellence: political correctness and technical competence. On these criteria, a talk by Tony Cliff would knock spots off a Dostoevsky novel.

We greatly impoverish our understanding of life under capitalism, if we neglect the criticism of it implicit in works by subjectively apolitical or even openly reactionary as a Tsarist, Tolstoy as a pacifist mystic, D.H. Lawrence as a sexist and an irrationalist, T.S. Eliot as an authoritarian Anglo-Catholic who was soft on fascism, William Faulkner as a Dixiecrat and so on, then it is we who are the losers.

Indeed the purge could hardly stop there, for many ‘committed revolutionary’ writers have been as mystified politically as the reactionary ones: think of the moralistic semi-anarchism of Serge or Orwell, or the Stalinist apologetics of Gorky, Sholokhov, Brecht or MacDiarmid. In these cases too their achievement could be said to be ‘in spite of their politics. So if we follow Birchall, we would seem to be left with Our Norman, and not much else.

Secondly, the appeal to subjective ‘commitment’ passes over what it is that makes a work both good art and revolutionary art: its relation to reality. Thus Birchall says of Brecht’s excellent poem A Bed for the Night:

The poem is not impartial, objective or anything of the sort; it expresses outrage at the sort of society that generates poverty. (Birchall, op. cit., p. 77)

This comment distils the essence of the bourgeois philosophy of art, in which ‘impartial’ is equated with ‘objective’ [2]. In fact, this poem is partisan just because it is objective: it tells it like it is, and the way it is – stinks. The poem does not ‘express outrage’ in the way that a swearword or an angry face might. It tells us about outrageous conditions, and the powerlessness of private charity to substantially change them.

Thirdly, works of art can refer to other matters than social ones, though the way they do so will always be socially conditioned. Birchall says sneeringly of ‘the Popular Front writer’ that ‘for him the terms are much easier – a few anti-fascist declarations and carry on writing about sex or religion or whatever he made his name at’ (p. 74). [3] The implication must be that topics that are not directly political are of no interest to a socialist, and this is ludicrous. Listen to Trotsky once more:

Let us take, for instance, such an elementary psychological feeling as fear of death. This feeling is characteristic not only of man but also of animals. In men it first found simple articulate expression, and later also artistic expression. In different ages, in different social milieus, this expression has changed, that is to say, men have feared death in different ways. And nevertheless what was said on this score not only by Shakespeare Byron, Goethe, but also by the Psalmist, can move us. (Class and Art in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 68)

Shall we say to the worker: read Pushkin in order to understand how a nobleman, a serfowner and gentleman of the bedchamber, encountered spring and experienced autumn? (ibid., p. 69)

As well as the fear of death, and our feeling for nature, which Trotsky refers to here, there are many other recurrent themes of literature, such as sexual desire, separation and grief, which are far from socially specific. The fact that these are perennial themes of literature should not make us regard them as ‘timeless spiritual questions’ or any such they stem from our biological nature. But they are things about which everyone has intense feelings, and they are the subject of much artistic work which need have no political relevance at all, and be none the worse for that. [4]

I would also like to know what such a crude politicisation of art could say about non-linguistic arts such as music or dancing; on the realist view they would fall outside the scope of political interpretation, and it could be recognised that much of what is involved in these is pure pleasure – ‘art for art’s sake’ if you like. But if the only justification of art is its place in the class struggle, some form of puritanism is bound to follow. Is there no place for art as pure enjoyment?

Again, one could ask: what about art that does give us an understanding of social realities, but those of a society quite unlike our own, such as ancient civilisations or the middle ages? In short, our appreciation of the arts could benefit from recalling Marx’s maxim ‘Nihil humani a me alienum puto’ (I regard nothing human as alien to me), and Engels’ motto: ‘take it easy’ (see their ‘confessions’ in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, pp. 436–7).

The theory of art presented by Birchall can only lead to a philistine narrowing of our understanding of art, and of the realities, social or otherwise, to which it alludes. But I suspect it is symptomatic of something more dangerous than that: an irrationalist tendency to base socialist politics on blind rage against society rather than an understanding of it; I suspect also that the appeal of this theory has a lot to do with machismo.

If Birchall has really never ‘seen a leaflet that even remotely suggested that if I didn’t turn up on a demo then my virility would somehow be called into question’ (p. 75), I would like to ask him what effect he intended to produce by referring to his own views as ‘red-blooded’, and Proust’s characters as ‘decadent ponces’. The appeal to conflict as opposed to reflection of reality as the rationale of literature sounds like a ‘fighting theory’, and is bound to attract the cowboys among us. But in fact it substitutes revolutionary posturing for revolutionary theory (which requires the will to understand), and leaves us with no grounds for preferring socialist politics to other expressions of the anger of exploited groups, such as crime or fascism.

Not only the Marxist theory of art, but the whole of Marxist theory, depends on the recognition that, if capitalist social reality is oppressive, then to ‘reflect’ it – to pierce through the illusions of ideology and reveal the truth about it – is to fight it.


1. See e.g. the first paragraph of the above quote from Engels, or Trotsky’s remarks about ‘naive though sincere doggerel’ published in revolutionary journals, which ‘were a political event, not a literary one’ (Class and Art in Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 65)

2. Contrast Trotsky’s Historical objectivity and artistic truth, where impartiality and objectivity are sharply distinguished (Trotsky on Literature and Art, p. 93)

3. I haven’t noticed any objections to bands which support Rock Against Racism continuing to sing about sex and Rastafarianism.

4. The Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro has a lot of good stuff to say about this in his book On Materialism (New Left Books, 1975) – a work which is like a fresh breeze after the stuffy atmosphere of most western Marxist philosophical writing.

Works Cited

Ian Birchall, The Spectre of Zhdanov in International Socialism, 2:1, July 1978.

V.I. Lenin, Lenin on Literature and Art, Progress, 1970.

Karl Marx, Early Writings, Pelican Marx Library, 1975.

Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, Progress, 1976.

Leon Trotsky, Trotsky on Literature and Art, Pathfinder, 1970.

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