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Irving Howe

The Life of the Mind in Russia

Stalin Purges Musicians

(February 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 8, 23 February 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The three most prominent Russian composers – Sergei Prokofieff, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khatchaturian – were publicly denounced last week by the Central Committee of the Russian Communist (Stalinist) Party for writing music that is “inexpressive, poor, unharmonious, muddled” and that “smells strongly of the spirit of the modern bourgeois music of Europe and America, which reflect the marasmus (emaciation) of bourgeois culture.”

Among the other crimes of which these and other Russian composers were accused are: “formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people ... denial of the main principles of classic music, propaganda of atonality, dissonance arid disharmony ... renunciation of such most important foundations of musical creation as melody, a passion for muddled neuropathic combinations which transform music into a cacophonic and chaotic heaping of sounds.”

The Central Committee’s statement, bristling with innuendos against those sufficiently perverse to compose along atonal lines, demands music which combines “a high content of artistic perfection and musical form,” which moves in a “realistic direction” and which recognizes the “truthfulness and reality of music, of its deep organic connection with the people and their music and songs.”

Simultaneously with this ukase there come reports from Russia of an “ideological offensive” in the field of biology.

Anton R. Zhebrak, until recently president of the White Russian Academy of Sciences, is in disgrace. Zherbak is guilty of criticizing an American scientist who had written a criticism of the Russian geneticist, Lysenko, which implied that Lysenko is a representative figure of Russian science. Zherbak deprecated Lysenko’s status. This matter goes back to 1936, when Lysenko was involved in a dispute with the great geneticist Vavilov – a dispute which ended with Vavilov’s arrest and exile to a Siberian concentration camp. That is the way scientific disputes are settled in Russia, and if Zherbak does not confess the monstrosity of his error he is likely to travel the same one-way road.


In themselves these events are perhaps not of first importance. So many intellectuals have been debased by the Stalinist regime; so many have been forced to recant their heretical views (heretical, that is, in holding aesthetic notions different from those of that great artist-writer-musician-mathematician-scientist- philosopher-sage-BELOVED LEADER, Stalin); so many have been imprisoned, driven to suicide or silence – that the sight of a few others being whipped by the ideological lash might ordinarily provoke a mere sad and muted reflections on the fate of the intellectual in a totalitarian society.

But there are a few special characteristics about these latest events which are worth glancing at for a moment:

In some ways the plight of the intellectual under Stalinism is now worse than it ever was under Hitler. This may seem like an extreme statement, but I think the facts justify it. The degree of totalitarian supervision exercised by the Stalinist state over all forms of intellectual work is now greater than it was even under Hitler’s dictatorship. The Stalinist state is tighter in its organization; it has a more precise ideological criterion than Hitlerism did because its demands are strictly utilitarian, direct and immediate, while those of the Nazi state were encased in a mystical verbiage which gave a few writers a certain “leeway.” (I hope no one is foolish or malicious enough to read these remarks as any kind of “defense” of Hitlerism; rather should they be seen as an indication of how barbaric Stalinism is.)

I would cite as proof of these remarks one simple fact: in Nazi Germany, Ernest Juenger, a nationalistic novelist, was able to circulate a novel during the war years which contained a disguised attack on the Nazi regime. The Stalinist censors would have immediately noticed its critical intentions; they have learned to suspect any work of art which does not actively praise the state. And rightly so, since the production of a “neutral” work of art in a totalitarian society is an act of defiance against it; such a work of art presumes to a value of its own quite apart from its use to the state. And that is the sort of defiance the Stalinist state cannot tolerate. We may therefore predict that the famous Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, who has been driven to translating Shakespeare into Russian as a means of escaping the problem of writing independently, will soon feel, publicly or privately, the blows of the Central Committee aestheticians.


The statement of the Central Committee on music is indicative of the undisguised barbarism which Stalinism has produced in Russia. Imagine trying to write a satire on this subject; it would be quite impossible to write anything as weird, as wild, as utterly nonsensical and meaningless – as flagrantly nonsensical and meaningless – as the Central Committee has produced. One suspects that part of the half-conscious motive in this sort of thing is merely to show how all-powerful the Stalinist bureaucracy is – to show that if it wishes it can even make adult, intelligent men repeat nonsense syllables with an air of complete gravity.

Behind the general ideological purge now taking place in Russia there is of course a very fundamental political reason: the anti-Western drive of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But, given this basic motivation, can it be denied that there is also an element of sheer flaunting of power in such gibberish? The inner mechanics of a totalitarian state ore such that, despite its desire to produce a completely utilitarian intellectual atmosphere, it often indulges in displays of absurdity that are not directly utilitarian. For who will dare to criticize or disagree?


And what about the American Stalinists? What about those unhappy souls who flocked to hear Shostakovich’s music because it was an augury of “Soviet culture,” who eagerly cheered Khatchkturian’s kitsch because it came from the blessed country? Alas, they are again at sea. No sooner have they settled down after the disturbance of Browder’s liquidation than they learn that they can’t listen to a Prokofieff concerto without feeling the corrective breath of the Kremlin on their necks. How uncertain, how troubling life must be for the Stalinist intellectuals who eagerly flock to the “cultural lectures” of the CP’s front groups. Next thing you know even Josh White may be considered impure!

And while on this subject, just a word about the last issue of The Nation, where there appears a wonderfully-timed article by its Moscow correspondent, Alexander Werth, a persistent Stalinophile. With exquisite delicacy Werth describes Stalinist rubber-hose treatment of its intellectuals as “functionalism.” He gravely reports the enthusiastic reception of Prokofieff’s “more than usually profound” Sixth Symphony. It will be interesting to see If Werth bothers to say anything about this latest purge. And how much longer will The Nation print dispatches from this wretched creature who writes of “Soviet art” without once mentioning the simple, basic fact that it exists in a vast concentration camp?


Finally, one returns to the poor unfortunates denounced in the Stalinist statement. Whatever one may think of their music, how can one avoid a feeling of deep sympathy for them in their present plight? Most of these composers are quite apolitical; they wish merely to be left alone so that they can work. But suppose they wearily decide to knuckle under in ordef to be able to keep working – what do they do then? What kind of music will satisfy the Russian prison-keepers? How exactly are they to fulfill the specification that their composition recognize the “truthfulness and reality of music?”

For even if they want to knuckle under, there is no clear indication of what they are to do. The novelists know that they are to write heroic tales about the new Five Year Plan and the greatness of Stalin. But how is one to transmute Stalin’s greatness into musical idiom?

Every creative personality, every honest intellectual in Russia must today be filled with a deep despair at the humiliation to which the Stalinist regime subjects him. Precisely because the intellectual can be of greater use to the regime than the individual worker does it subject him to more merciless supervision. If the regime grants him better living conditions than it does to the worker, it leaves him even less independent and creative. It enslaves his mind and corrupts his soul.

Today we are accustomed to the despair that runs through artistic work in capitalist society. But when the intellectuals of Russia are at last freed from Stalinist slavery, we shall learn the full extent of despair to which contemporary society drives the human mind.

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