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Ian H. Birchall

The Spectre of Zhdanov

(July 1978)

From International Socialism, 2:1, July 1978, pp. 67–78. [1]
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Andrei A. Zhdanov, secretary of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party, and J.V. Stalin’s front man on cultural and philosophical questions, departed this life in 1948, shortly after organising the suppression of the literary journal Leningrad. Among the journal’s crimes had been publishing the works of Anna Akhmatova, of which he said:

’These works can sow nothing but gloom, low spirits, pessimism, a desire to escape the vital problems of social life and turn away from the broad highway of social life and activity into a narrow little world of personal experiences. How can the upbringing of our young people be entrusted to her?’ [2]

But though the Russian bureaucracy’s answer to Mary Whitehouse has been dead thirty years, his ghost still walks when questions of Marxism, art and culture are discussed.

The Stalinist attempt to subordinate all literary and artistic activity to the political control of the state is still a living problem. It is this that explains why, in Russia, a writer of fiction like Solzhinitsyn can embody a political challenge which would be quite incompatible for one of his Western counterparts.

The easy response to the Stalinist domination of culture is the liberal response, a response calling on the magic concepts of individualism, spontaneity, ‘creative freedom’, etc. This has been the traditional response, not only of the right, but of much of the non-Stalinist left. It is also the response of Western Communist Parties trying to get rid of the bad name of Stalinism. Thus the Central Committee of the French CP proclaimed, in 1966, that

’... one should not, under any circumstances, limit the creator’s right to research ... the requirements of literature and art to experiment should not be denied or hampered, as such an attempt would do grave harm to the development of culture and indeed of the human mind.’ [3]

Now this was indeed a step forward for the French CP, which nineteen years earlier had let one of its leading intellectuals write of France’s most distinguished living novelist: ‘if Gide became disgusted with the Bolsheviks, it was because they were not pederasts.’ [4] But it is not nearly enough. In several countries in Western Europe, including Britain, we have today the possibility of non-Stalinist revolutionary organisations which will be, not sects, but parties, such parties will have to wage a prolonged and energetic ideological struggle. As well as the press which is central to party-building, they will have to turn out a flood of posters, cartoons, films, etc., They will have to relate to the cultural developments that have taken place independently of them, notably the recent resurgence of political theatre. And they will have to stand up to an ideological offensive from the forces of reaction, who are determined to reimpose ‘order’ by restoring orthodoxy in the content of education.

To face up to these tasks, they will need to look to a tradition which insists that literary and artistic activity have a vital role to play in the struggle for working-class power — a tradition which sees the separation of ‘art’ and ‘political propaganda’ as two incompatible species as meaning the impoverishment of politics as well as of art. And this means stopping looking over our shoulders for the spectre of Zhdanov, and discovering what is still alive and relevant in the traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

’Art’ wrote Trotsky’, is one of the ways in which man finds his bearings in the world.’ [5] This apparently self-evident remark in fact lays the basis for a fundamental critique of accepted bourgeois ideas on art and literature. What it does is to deny that art is to be judged by its own standards; on the contrary it insists that artistic activity is one human activity among many, and can be judged only in comparison with the others. The bourgeois notion that there are such things as ‘literary’ standards, distinct from the moral, political or social, serves precisely to make literature harmless at the price of making it irrelevant. As the French Communist novelist Paul Nizan pointed out, conventional literary critics consider that an upper-class reception is a worthy subject for literature, but a strike is not. [6]

According to this mythology, when we read Proust’s account of the parasitic life-style of the pre-1914 aristocracy, we are engaging in an aesthetic experience – to question whether the decadent ponces who people Proust’s pages have any right to live like that is not so much churlish as plain irrelevant. On the other hand, a novelist who writes about a strike will find himself being accused of being ‘prejudiced’, of ‘dragging propaganda into literature,’ and so on.

The logic of ‘pure’ aesthetic values, free of any social considerations, is fascism. The aesthetic appreciation of a small elite is to be allowed to override any consideration of human well-being. Thus the Italian futurist Marinetti celebrated Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia with a manifesto which declared:

‘For twenty-seven years we futurists have disputed the idea that war is seen as anti-aesthetic ....war is beautiful, because thanks to gas-masks, to the terrifying megaphone, to the flame-thrower, to the little tanks, it founds the sovereignty of man on the subjugation of the machine. War is beautiful, because for the first time it brings into reality the dream of a man with a metallic body. War is beautiful, because it enriches a flowering meadow with the flaming orchids of machine-guns.’ [7]

A Marxist writer always starts from the perspective of the class struggle as a totality; he cannot permit himself the luxury of ‘pure’ art. Thus the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who perhaps more than any other writer has attempted to integrate Marxism into the very form of his work, never allows us to surrender to the illusion of the theatre, to the belief that what is on the stage is a self-contained reality and an end in itself. He constantly reminds us that the play is a human product, and that the problems presented in it have their solution outside the theatre.

Or again, the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge tells us in his Memoirs that for him literature is not something self-justifying, but rather a form of political action that is appropriate at some times and not at others. After years as a political journalist and activist, he found himself excluded from direct political action by his involvement with the Left Opposition. He comments:

‘I had renounced writing when I entered the Russian Revolution. Literature seemed quite a secondary matter — so far as I personally was concerned — in an age like this. My duty was dictated by history itself. Besides, whenever I did any writing, there was such a striking discrepancy between my sensibility and my opinions that I could actually write nothing of any value. Now that nearly ten years had rolled by, I felt sufficiently in tune with myself to write. I reflected that our own reactionary phase might be lengthy; the West, too, might be stabilized for years to come; and since I was refused the right to join the work of industrialization, except at the price of my freedom of opinion, I could (while remaining uncompromising as an Oppositionist forced into inactivity) provide a serviceable testimony on these time.’ [8]

In classic Marxist terminology literary and artistic activity are part of what is called the ‘superstructure’. Unfortunately, Marx’s Stalinist friends and his liberal enemies have combined to spread a deformed notion of what the term actually means. In this deformed version, it is assumed that there is an economic base consisting of the actual organisation of production in a given society, and a ‘superstructure’ which simply and passively reflects the economic realities underlying them. The political consequences are plain; if human consciousness just tags along behind economic reality, then how is the world to be changed — either by blind impersonal ‘historical laws’ or by some superior consciousness which somehow stands outside the superstructure (i.e. the all-wise, all-seeing party, its central committee or its general secretary).

Marx’s formulation is quite different. In the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy he writes of ‘the legal, political religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.’ [9] The last three words are crucial—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.

Now this notion of literature as a weapon in the class struggle is clearly a bit too red-blooded for some so-called Marxists. Thus, in the first issue of the journal of the Communist Party’s Literature Group, Red Letters, there was a review of Paul O’Flinn’s Them and Us in Literature [10] which begins:

‘The very title of this book indicates its crudity. For O’Flinn literature is a terrain in the class struggle in just the way that Fords Dagenham is. There’s “Them” (capitalists, reactionaries, bad guys) and they slog it out in the pages of English texts in much the same fashion as they do on the shop floor.’

Those of us who think that O’Flinn’s book is one of the most refreshing and concrete pieces of Marxist criticism for a long time are pleased to go on to read that Paul’s crudity is not just a personal defect, but ‘the cultural equivalent of the crass economism that dominates his favoured political organisation—the International Socialists’.

For Marx the class struggle was always paramount. He took a continuing interest in artistic — and especially literary — questions throughout his life precisely because he observed that they were an arena of the class struggle. And this, not because writers and artists had plunged into struggle on behalf of the oppressed, but because ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry.’ [11]

Why? Because the whole dynamic of capitalist production is accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake. Any activity devoted to the ends of increasing human enjoyment or understanding runs counter to it. ‘The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance-hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour — your capital.’ [12]

As so often with Marx, his comments are even truer to-day than they were when he first made them. The offensive launched by Jim Callaghan and Shirley Williams to make education more responsive to the needs of ‘industry’ was based on exactly the same ideological presuppositions, playing off ‘production’ against the ‘aesthetic’. What it might mean in social democratic capitalist terms was summed up by Tribunite M.P. and Wedgwood Benn supporter Joe Ashton, in reply to a question on student grants:

‘Son, if I had my way, anybody studying how to produce a car or a TV set or a plane to beat the Japs and Germans would get £2,000 a year. The others passing their time on reading ancient Greek literature ought to get threepence a week.’ [13]

Of course capitalism sometimes turns artistic products into commodities — records, paperbacks, etc., But even here the logic of capitalist production is quite different from the logic of artistic production. Marx’s own example of ‘theatre directors who buy singers for a season not in order to have them sing, but so that they do not sing in a competitor’s theatre’ [14] could find a thousand parallels today, for example in the investors who buy famous paintings in order to hoard them where nobody can see them.

This hostility of capitalist society to art has been felt my many artists and critics since the mid-nineteenth century. For most the answer has been ‘art for art’s sake’, an escape into a world of artistic independence free from the pressures of any class. But for Marx the only alternative was the working class — and for him the working class was never an abstraction, always real, concrete horny-handed workers.

When Marx was a young man in Paris in 1844, he wrote a letter to Feuerbach, the German philosopher who had most influenced him, contrasting the high level of of philosophical discussion in the Paris working men’s clubs with the meaningless abstractions of German academic philosophy. [15] And in The Holy Family he scathingly attacked such idealists and elitists as Bauer, saying:

‘Were Criticism better acquainted with the movement of the lower classes of the people it would know that the extreme resistance that they have suffered from practical life is changing them every day. Modern prose and poetry emanating in England and France from the lower classes of the people would show it that the lower classes of the people know how to raise themselves spiritually even without being directly overshadowed by the Holy Ghost of Critical Criticism.’ [16]

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.

But Marx and Engels were always anxious to win writers to active support for the workers’ cause. In 1852 Marx wrote to the editor Joseph Weydemeyer, asking him to ‘compliment’ and ‘cajole’ the poet Freiligrath, in order to get him to write for the revolutionary press. [17] And in 1888 Engels wrote to an English novelist, Margaret Harkness, commenting on her novel of working class life, City Girl. His main criticism was that she had shown the working class ‘as a passive mass, unable to help itself and not even making any attempt at striving to help itself, whereas he asserts that ‘the rebellious reaction of the working class ... must therefore lay claim to a place in the domain of realism.’ [18]

This, of course, leads us into the question of ‘proletarian culture’. After the Russian Revolution a school of writers — the Organisation for Proletarian Culture, known as the ‘Proletcult’ — began to debate the questions of ‘proletarian culture’ and ‘proletarian literature’. Trotsky argued vigorously against them [19], saying that whereas the bourgeoisie had developed its own culture within feudalism for generations before taking political power, the proletariat had taken political power when it was still at a low cultural level. The main task in the period of proletarian power was for the working class to take over the cultural acquisitions of the past: Now clearly much that Trotsky has to say about the different historical evolution of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is undeniable. But it is necessary to be extremely cautious about transferring Trotsky’s conclusions to the very different cultural and ideological conditions of the Western working class in the seventies. Anyone who believes that to be a ‘Trotskyist’ in cultural questions it is sufficient to repeat what Trotsky said in Russia in the early twenties should read a little article called The Struggle for Cultured Speech [20],where Trotsky argues about the vital task of stamping out swearing in the factories, and then ask themselves if this really forms part of the Trotskyist programme today.

Much more important than the rather sterile debate about ‘proletarian culture’ is the question of the relation of artistic activity to the building of the revolutionary party. In November 1905 Lenin wrote an article called Party Organisation and Party Literature in which he declared:

‘What is this principle of party literature? It is not simply that, for the socialist proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups; it cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, “a cog and a screw” of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically-conscious vanguard of the entire working class. Literature must become a component of organised, planned and integrated Social-Democratic Party work.’ [21]

Now this text was quoted by Zhdanov, and anti-Leninists have made great play of it to show the alleged continuity between Lenin and Stalinist cultural policy. Lenin’s defenders have tried to argue that the text doesn’t deal with so-called ‘creative’ literature at all, but this defence doesn’t stand up. Lenin was making no such distinction between Literature (with a capital L) and other forms of writing; fictional reportage was a common feature in the revolutionary press, and Lenin went to some trouble to get Gorky and other novelists to write for the party press.

But the real reason why Lenin’s text seems to have Stalinist overtones is because decades of Stalinism have corrupted our whole idea of what a party is. If a party is a one-way transmission belt bringing the wisdom of those who know (the Central Committee) down to those of us who don’t know, then all that Lenin could mean would be the issuing of Party directives telling writers how to write. But a revolutionary party is not like that. Joining the party is not an act of religious conversion, whereby one escapes from all one’s problems by abandoning one responsibility to the all-knowing party. It is a participation in a collective process in which one’s own thinking and initiative become more, not less important. An industrial militant who joins the party does not simply obey orders; the party’s programme and discipline provide a framework for him to work in, but his responsibility to translate that programme into the concrete needs of his workplace remains his and his alone. The analogy with the situation of the revolutionary writer is obvious.

The Stalinist tradition, on the other hand, offers two distinct and contrasting roles for the writer. On the one hand, there is the party hack, whose job it is to transmit party ideas faithfully. According to the official definition of ‘Socialist Realism’, the artist has to give ‘a truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development.’ He has to take on ‘the task of ideological transformation and education of the working man in the spirit of Socialism.’ [22]

The alternative role is that of the Popular Front writer. For him the terms are much easier — a few anti-fascist declarations and carry on writing about sex, religion or whatever he made his name at. It’s much better if he doesn’t call himself a socialist — that way the platforms look ‘broader’. As Georg Lukacs, the major theorist of the Popular Front in literature put it:

‘Not everyone who looks for a solution to the social and ideological crisis of bourgeois society ... will be a professed socialist. It is enough that a writer takes socialism into account and does not reject it out of hand.’ [23]

What unites the definitions of these two roles is the underlying elitism. ‘Socialism’ is the already determined property of the party; there is no place for the imaginative contribution of the writer, no place for the writer who has broken with the bourgeoisie, but is still groping his way towards the proletariat.

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). Speaking to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Zhdanov declared that the task of Russian writers was:

‘... to struggle against all the remnants of bourgeois influence on the proletariat, against laxity, frivolity, idleness, petty-bourgeois indiscipline and individualism, greed and the lack of conscientiousness with regard to collective property.’

Jim Callaghan could hardly have put it better — make people work harder and stop them thieving from the state factories.

Zhdanov is asking writers to be the voices of a new class becoming conscious of itself. Because Trotsky never saw the bureaucracy as a ruling class, he did not pin down the role of Zhdanovism, and at times his criticism of Stalinist cultural policy lapses into such liberal declarations as ‘Spiritual creativeness demands freedom’. [24] But Trotsky was in essence very far from being a liberal, and in helping to found the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art [25] in 1938, he clearly recognised the need for a political organisation of writers.

If we are looking for a model of what the relationship between the party and the artist might look like, we could do no better than examine the relationship between Lenin and the novelist Gorky, author of The Mother and other proletarian novels. [26] Lenin shows enormous respect for Gorky as a writer, just because he recognises Gorky’s power to influence potential supporters of the movement. But this respect never takes the form of passive admiration; Lenin takes Gorky seriously, and therefore constantly argues and disagrees with him, always striving to persuade him of the correct political line.

The question of a satisfactory relation between the party and the writer is not a question of directives, but one of the political credibility of the party itself. When one of the most able political playwrights in Britain, David Mercer, can say ‘I have experienced a total crisis of conviction, not about social justice or political theory but about people. I am not afraid of revolution; I am afraid of revolutionaries’ [27], then our reaction should not simply be to gloat at Mercer’s erstwhile political colleagues, but to note a failure by the whole revolutionary left.

One more important question remains. If we argue for art and literature that is consciously committed to revolutionary politics, are we, as they say, ‘reducing literature to propaganda’?

Now as a digression it is interesting to note the way the work ‘propaganda’ is used in discussions of literature. If a writer seeks actively to persuade his readers of the desirability of a certain course of action, he will invariably be accused of ‘ propaganda’. Of ‘propaganda’, not of ‘advertising’. Now at first sight, it would seem that if you want to denigrate a piece of writing, just about the most pernicious thing you could compare it with would be advertising. Advertising seeks to persuade me to buy something I don’t really need so that someone else can make a profit, and it generally does it in a dishonest and manipulative way. Political propaganda is generally much more innocuous — I’ve never, for example, 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. But, in the prevailing mythology, advertising is commercial, and so acceptable; propaganda is political and it isn’t. So it’s ‘propaganda’ that becomes the dirty word.

Nonetheless, there is a more serious point here. Any serious artistic production, poster or play, cartoon or novel, however committed, also contains an element of ambiguity. If the element of ambiguity is missing, the work will fail to persuade, because the ambiguity of art derives from the ambiguity of reality. As Tony Cliff writes, discussing the revival of Zhdanovism in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, ‘it demands a rejection of the validity of any artistic creation or tradition taken from the past, as these reflect the limitations of the individual. In “socialist realism” there are no Hamlets or Othellos — in the real world they are all too common.’ [28]

The ambiguities that run through all the best revolutionary socialist art derive from the ambiguities of reality. To take just two very obvious examples.

Firstly, the unevenness of working class consciousness. To align oneself with the historic role of the working class in no way bypasses the problem of the contradictions within the working class. Take two of the finest socialist novels ever written, Zola’s Germinal and Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Both draw a great deal of their power from the dramatisation of the relation between the committed socialist militant and the mass of workers; a relation that is not only problematic, but continually changing. Etienne Lantier in Germinal finds himself successively playing the roles of the isolated nutter, the orator winning wild applause, and the responsible leader trying to hold his supporters back from going too far. Or to take a more recent example, the Our Norman cartoon in Socialist Worker derived its strength from the erratic nature of the hero. One week Norman’s head was filled with reactionary junk from the television, the next week he seemed to have been reading the rest of Socialist Worker. The socialist realist hero Arnold had much better politics, but would have been a less successful vehicle for propaganda.

Secondly, the problem of ends and means. Revolutionary socialists accept that to achieve their ends they have to use highly unpleasant and brutal means. Revolutionary art will advocate the use of such means; what it must not do is to deny that the means are brutal, to suggest that the bullets won’t hurt and the blood won’t be real. As George Orwell points out in Inside the Whale, Auden’s poem Spain contains the line ‘The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’. As Orwell comments, such a line could only be written by someone who has no experience of murder, by ‘the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.’

Perhaps the greatest example in socialist writing of the combination of commitment and ambiguity in a treatment of means and ends is the work of Brecht, a combination made all the more powerful by the fact that Brecht’s own politics, his willingness to accept Stalinist means, are very much open to question. To take a very simple example of Brecht’s approach, there is a short poem he wrote in 1931:

I hear that in New York
On the corner of Broadway and 26th Street
A man stands every evening during the winter months
and, by requests to passers-by, procures
beds for the night for the homeless who assemble there.

The world is not changed thereby,
the relations between men are not improved,
the age of exploitation is not shortened thereby.
But a few people have a bed for the night,
The wind is kept off them for one night,
the snow that would have fallen on them falls on the empty street.

Don’t put the book down, reader:

A few people have a bed for the night,
The wind is kept off them for one night,
The snow that would have fallen on them falls on the empty street.
But the world is not changed thereby,
the relations between men are not improved thereby,
the age of exploitation is not shortened thereby.

The poetic technique of simple inversion is almost childishly simple; but the point is clear. The poem is not impartial, objective or anything of the sort; it expresses outrage at the sort of society that generates poverty. The ambiguity lies in the problem of action, the dilemma of charity or politics, reform or revolution. Once again, Brecht knows which side he is on, but by taking the choice seriously he projects the responsibility on to the reader. Despite Zhdanov and despite the aesthetes, art can be a weapon in revolutionary struggle.


1. This is a revised version of a talk given to the IS Agitprop Conference in Manchester in September 1975.

2. Quoted in Craig (ed.), Marxists on Literature, Penguin 1975, p. 522.

3. Ibid., p. 528.

4. Jean Kanapa in Lettres Françaises, 20 November 1947.

5. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, Pathfinder 1970, p. 86.

6. P. Nizan, Pour une Nouvelle Culture, Grassee 1971, pp. 139–40.

7. Quoted in W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Epoch of its Technical Reproduceability.

8. V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901–1941, OUP 1967, p. 262.

9. Marx & Engels, On Literature and Art, International General, New York 1974, p. 85.

10. Pluto Press 1975

11. Theories of Surplus Value, Lawrence & Wishart 1969, I, 285.

12. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow 1961, p. 119

13. Labour Weekly, 16 January 1976.

14. Grundrisse, Penguin 1973, p. 282.

15. Letter quoted in L. Goldmann, Marxisme et Sciences Humaines, Gallimard 1970, p. 157.

16. The Holy Family, Moscow 1956, p. 181.

17. Marx & Engels, On Literature and Art, p. 122.

18. ibid., pp.115–6.

19. Literature and Revolution, Ann Arbor 1960, chapter VI.

20. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, Monad Press 1973, p. 52.

21. Lenin, On Literature and Art, Moscow 1970, p. 23.

22. Quoted Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature, OUP 1967, pp. 160–61.

23. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Merlin 1962, p. 60.

24. The Revolution Betrayed, Merit 1965, p. 180.

25. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, pp. 115–121.

26. Cf. the collection, Lenin & Gorky, Letters, Reminiscences, Articles, Moscow 1973.

27. TV Times, 10 April, 1976.

28. Crisis in China, IS 29.

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