Comintern History. Australian Communist Party 1943

Art and the Struggle

by D. Diamond

Source: "Reason in Revolt", Source documents of Australian Radicalism;
First Published: in Communist Review, November 1943, pp. 151-153;
Transcribed: by Chris Clayton.

Certain trends evident in modern art exhibitions make J. B. Miles’ appeal at the 13th Congress for Communists to write more on these matters very timely.

A good percentage of modern art expresses anything but intelligible ideas, and there is much that must be classed as experimentation, but tribute must be paid to the work of a small and conscientious section whose positive qualities are already evident in their realist approach.

But “Realism with a social content” means discoveries on a bigger and grander scale than many of these artists are achieving at present. The changes which the world is undergoing make big demands on the artist. They trouble, but at the same time exact great things from him — the future being with the artist who is capable of taking a comprehensive viewpoint embracing a totality of social relationships.

While opposition to capitalism is apparent in the work of a number of other artists, promising to develop into a revolutionary attitude towards life, their work is too introspective and individualistic. Whatever bearing it has on social problems, the meaning is too obscure and unintelligible to all but the artist.

In a class-divided society where the individual has no realisation of his role, the artist is often caught in the trap of individuality, absorbed in his own frustration — delving into the sub-conscious and the irrational to the point where all rational thought is left behind.

The influence of Surrealism and Formalism are apparent in much of the work exhibited — influences that must be curbed if the work of an artist is to escape triviality and deal with events that matter — the death of the old world and the birth of the new.

The first of these, Surrealism, has lost much of its influence overseas, but is still influencing artists in this country. Surrealism claims to be revolutionary — purporting to add to Marxism the theories of Freud, apart from economic considerations. The free play of the sub-conscious in regard to the five senses, sexuality as a system, the involuntary cropping up of associations during the creative process, though perhaps of some scientific value, can play no part in making the people conscious of their social and revolutionary responsibilities.

In considering Surrealism it is important to bear in mind the attacks made on the Soviet Union by leading exponents of Surrealism overseas. The attacks usually take the well-known Trotskyist form of supporting the cause of Communism while attacking the U.S.S.R. This does not mean that artists influenced by Surrealism are Trotskyists.

The struggle against Trotskyism in the field of art is worth mentioning here, however, as it may be that ideas emanating from this source have been innocently enough taken up locally. Trotsky’s views on proletarian culture are not so well known as his other distortions. He writes: —

... The bourgeoisie is a rich class and hence educated. There was a bourgeois culture before the bourgeoisie finally captured power. The bourgeoisie captures power in order to entrench its domination everlastingly. The proletariat in bourgeois society is an impecunious and disinterested class and can, therefore, create no culture of its own. Only after capturing power it first realises its horrible cultural backwardness.” (“Literature and Revolution”).

It was no accident that Trotsky assumed leadership over the opponents of proletarian culture, a position determined by the political conviction that denied the possibility of building socialism in one country.

Trotsky considered that the function of a substitute in the period of proletarian dictatorship will be fulfilled by the art of the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia, and afterwards there will be no need for proletarian culture. The proletariat being incapable of creating its own class revolutionary culture must entrust the “creative culture tradition to the bourgeois creative intellientsia,” which will ensure cultural continuity until some time as “the kingdom of Socialism” arrives and there will be no need of any class culture.

Here we have not only a denial of proletarian culture, but of the class struggle. Obviously, proletarian culture in State forms is not possible until after the seizure of power by the working class, but even more obviously proletarian culture is a sharp weapon in the struggle against the enemies of culture before the revolution. The artists, painters and writers who are expressing anti-fascist and progressive ideas in their work, who have a realist approach to life in all its forms, are playing an important part in the development of a People’s Movement in Australia.

By rejecting proletarian culture, Trotsky at the same time encouraged the further development of bourgeois culture and ideology under socialism! The anti-Marxist, counter-revolutionary position of Trotsky on questions of culture is evident in the light of the following: —

“... the methods of Marxism are not the methods of art.” (Literature and Revolution, p. 161).

Lenin, in opposition to Trotsky, took the viewpoint of a revolutionary proletarian socialist culture. Here is what he writes: “Marxis has conquered for itself its all-world historical significance as the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat by the fact that it, Marxism, has not at all cast aside the most valuable conquests of the bourgeois era, but, on the contrary, by mastering and working over everything that was valuable in the more than 2,000 years of development of human thought and culture. Only further work on this basis and in this direction, inspired by the practical experience on the dictatorship of the proletariat as the last struggle against all kinds of exploitation, can be recognised as the development of a really proletarian culture. The entire experience of latter day history and especially the more than half a century of revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of all countries of the world since the appearance of the Communist Manifesto have proved beyond peradventure of doubt that only the world philosophy of Marxism is the correct expression of the interests, the viewpoints and the culture of the proletariat.”

In the same way as Leninism is the continuation of Marxism, so the Leninist view of art is the further development of Marx and Engels’s views on that subject.

Formalism, the other tendency referred to above, was characterised by Lenin as the main right danger on all art fronts.

Insisting on simplicity in art, on its accessibility to the broadest masses, Lenin and the Party fought against formalism which was leading art along the path of virtuosity. In the first years of the revolution, in his conversations with students, Lenin spoke against the spreading of a formalist viewpoint, in painting, sculpture and literature. Lenin demanded realism in art and more than once stood out against the petit-bourgeois, idealistic aesthetic tendencies among which formalism occupied the leading role. Later formalism went over to active opposition, open warfare against Marxism.

To all these tendencies in the question of art, the Party has posed the Leninist slogan of art as a weapon of socialist education, of art joined to the masses, of art as a means of understanding and remaking the world. The revolution in Russia brought into aesthetic life the great masses of the people. New people filled the theatres and art galleries, new readers demanded literature, making new demands on art and literature, bringing art generally the demand that it be placed at the service of the people.

The truth of Lenin’s statement that “art belongs to the people. It must with its widest stretching roots go out into the very thick of the broadest masses. It must combine the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them,” is confirmed by twenty-six years of Soviet life. It is because Lenin’s words have been fully realised, because there is no separation of art and culture from the people, that we find socialist artists playing such an important role in the struggle against the Nazi invaders.

(With acknowledgements to A. Stork.)