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Ian H. Birchall


(Summer 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.29, Summer 1967, p.35.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On Literature and Art
A. Lunacharsky
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 12s 6d

Marxists, concerned with the understanding of ideology, have always, justly, given great importance to literature. For every work of literature is simultaneously ideological and anti-ideological; on the one hand it crystallises the ideas of a particular social group; on the other hand, explicitly or implicitly (by its nature as an art-form) it criticises these ideas. Hence an advance in Marxist theory will be organically linked to a development of Marxist criticism.

This advance is in no way assisted by the publication of this rag-bag of essays by Lunacharsky, Stalin’s Commissar for Education. A critique of Mayakovsky lapses into hysterical abuse of Trotsky. At one point he says ‘this is the cue for the appearance, not of Marxist criticism but of Marxist censorship.’ (As Literature and Revolution shows, any justifiable Marxist censorship must be firmly based on Marxist criticism.)

But beyond the political distortions lies a complete absence of method. Failing to transcend the facile dichotomy of subjective and objective, Lunacharsky flutters pathetically between mechanical determinism and idealist formalism.. (A similar phenomenon can still be observed; in the pages of Marxism Today).

On the one hand art is often seen as passive reflection – ‘Every writer speaks for one class or another.’ Bernard Shaw is praised as a friend of the Soviet Union; his Fabianism and his dramatic brilliance are neglected. Crude judgments are interspersed with banalities that are not criticism, let alone Marxist criticism: ‘First, of all, there is the sound of Wagner’s music, the intensity, the depth, courage, variety, passion, psychological and acoustical charm of his musical texture.’ Lunacharsky’s favourite word seems to be ‘profound’ – used to add weight to singularly unprofound sentences.

For Lunacharsky, Marxism is no more than static rationalism. Surrealism’s attack on ‘bourgeois rationalism’ is dismissed in a few lines. The longest piece in the book is devoted to the defence of the ‘enlightener’ Chernyshevsky.

That this hack material (subsidised from the surplus value of Soviet workers) is available, while the works of critics like Lucien Goldmann and Henri Lefebvre await expensive translation from bourgeois publishers is symptomatic of the contempt for theory that permeates even the best sections or British Marxism.

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Last updated: 6 May 2010