Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


States of Illusion

States of Illusion: Soviet Graphics
Tate Modern Poster Exhibition, 2002

ON the fifth floor of the Tate Modern Gallery, Bankside, there is an exhibition that readers of Revolutionary History really should find time to visit. The display of posters gathered there combines art with politics, filling the room with a record of political and international events that span more than 70 years, from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the collapse of Stalinism in 1981. This unique display apparently warrants little in the way of publicity or promotion by its host. This is in spite of its interesting and representative interpretations of a modern period, and in a medium so often neglected and misused.

The images range from dramatic expressions of a living revolution, attempting to communicate its political message to a mass audience of workers and peasants, right the way through to the monotonous, mind-numbing dullness of Stalinist cultism, and hero-worship of the most bureaucratic type. The exhibits number 62 in all, and can only be but a small selection of the total number held in the personnel collection of their owner, David King.

What makes this particular exhibition so rewarding is the opening sections, with posters rich in the imagery of class against class, spanning a whole wall. The colouring is vivid: contrasting, conflicting hues of red and black give additional focus, conveying the sharp contradictions present within post-revolutionary society. In an early poster, three rotund, overweight top-hatted bankers depict the bourgeoisie. They sit on top of a heap of human figures; many of them are prostrate. Their semi-clothed bodies contrast sharply with the well-tailored raiment of the capitalists – exploitation is raw and explicit. Each one of the three capitalists wear his own national flag of imperialism: one British, one French, and one American. They represent the real combined threat to the Russian Revolution and the international working class. In this straightforward but simple way, the workers’ need for internationalism across the world is graphically portrayed.

The use of posters is deliberate. In a large country, with little in the way of a modern communication system and a population that was often semi-literate or even illiterate, the image could sum up much that was full of great meaning. It was a way of keying into the symbolic system of thought which all human beings use as a reference point in their intellectual journey of reasoning and reflection. For all of us, the image is full of meaning, it is our collective inheritance of oppression and liberation, often communicating more than a volume of text. Even if you could not read, you could at least see, you could at least visualise what was being intended, and in so doing understand. This form of comprehension allowed the process of education to be more than political, once the connection between the image and the slogan had been made. Then a case for functional literacy was being made to a mass audience that had so often been denied even a basic grounding in the tools necessary for the accessing of knowledge.

In this way, the illiterate peasant could apprehend the policy of the Bolshevik government in faraway Moscow, or feel the support of the revolutionary workers of Petrograd. The revolution animated and energised society in a way that the passive party politics of a bourgeois representative democracy never can. The direct, accountable election of workers’ delegates to factory committees and the local soviet broke the bonds of machine politics. This in itself required new more direct and open forms of communication and reasoning. The traditional intelligentsia could just not keep pace with the rapidly changing forms of discourse, unless they also changed and moved with the new contemporary currents. This some of them did willingly, for in a new revolutionary public democracy new forms of thought breathed new life into communications, and the public wall poster became one way to express this.

In certain cases, actual campaigns were organised through the medium of posters. The problem of starting up a mass literacy drive was linked to the need to increase production. In the countryside, rural literacy campaigns were organised via the dual symbols of the book and the sickle. Better education and improved grain output promised improvements throughout society.

In a lithograph by an unknown artist from 1921, entitled Red Soldier! Attack Disorder, the Civil War is set alongside the attempts to revive a collapse in the economy. The military front is transposed, and the failures in the economy are viewed as a new enemy, sapping the strength of the working class and its alliance with the peasantry. Posters were also used in an auxiliary manner, to advertise other visual media through which the revolution was working. As Russian film companies toured the countryside with mobile cinemas, the directors Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein used the new techniques of montage, repetition and superimposition.

The posters on display are a real memory bank of struggle, a legacy of collective capital based on the rise and decay of the Russian Revolution. The drive to industrialise is well represented, with the famous slogan of ‘Soviets plus Electrification’ blazoned across one poster, alongside the inevitable poster of Lenin. In this way, the inner workings of the revolution is charted through its twists and turns. The posters seem to become more and more lifeless as the 1920s and 1930s roll on, something which in my view is not unconnected to changing political atmosphere. As the witch-hunts and victimisations build up in a crescendo under Socialism in One Country, the process of mass purges expands into the forced collectivisation of agriculture. Millions die as great victories for socialism are proclaimed. Rather like the government-sponsored campaigns, the posters become wooden and mechanical, stripped of movement and life.

Finally, the Great Patriotic War: a poster taken from the window of the TASS building and made by the Kukrinksy Collective. It is made of gouache on paper and is entitled Thunderbolt. A threatening all-black background represents the darkened sky of Russia in the winter of 1942–43. An outline sketch of Hitler, together with Nazi tanks covered in swastikas, cower under a reign of three thunderbolts bearing down on them from the sky above. Each one of three streaks of lightening is depicted in national colours, one American, one British and one Russian. The revolutionary edge of anti-fascism is blunted in true Popular Front style.

Glyn Beagley

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011