Comintern History. Australian Communist Party 1944

Signs of an “Infantile Disorder” on the Cultural Front...

by John Reed

Source: "Reason in Revolt", Source documents of Australian Radicalism;
First Published: in Communist Review, July 1944, pp. 284-285;;
Transcribed: by Chris Clayton.

Recent Party action in bringing cultural issues into the limelight was such a progressive and desirable step that it received the widest praise and acknowledgement from all those who have been engaged in the past with these very activities. The Communist Party can only establish itself on a stable and lasting basis after giving due importance to man ’s cultural needs and the expression of his creative impulses in the various art forms. It is well-known that this fact has been fully realised in the Soviet Union, and it is not a moment too soon for its full consideration here.

These facts make it all the more deplorable that, at the very outset of this cultural resurgence, there should appear in the Review statements on the subject which can only be categorized as the most appalling bunkum.

When Max Brown, in the January issue, wrote his “Reply to John Reed,” his arguments — if they could be dignified with that name — appeared to be so unrelated to the question of painters and paintings with which I had been concerned, that no comment seemed to be called for from me. But with the February issue, another article appears by “H.M.” (possibly Herbert McClintock) which, though almost equally irrelevant, probably requires an answer if only because of its inevitable cumulative effect.

Although Max Brown has written at the greater length, I propose to say little about his “Reply,” because, in the first place, in a discussion about painting, he admits that he knows “very little about painting” secondly, because to deal with his “arguments” would mean taking them one by one, and they seem obviously not worth the space which would be required to do this: thirdly, because he entirely misrepresents my own arguments, which anyone who wants to can see for themselves in the December Review, and fourthly, because he ends on a note of such utter imbecility (quite apart from the fact that it has nothing whatever to do with the subject under discussion) that one feels disinclined to bother about him at all. Through what happy piece of inside information has he gleaned the amazing fact that the words of Stalin’s battle cry “Forward, for the liberation of mankind” were “quietly spoken ... little words”?

H.M.’s arguments are at least more succinctly expressed, even though the “infantile disorder” that gives rise to them may be equally apparent. According to him, the fact that I say “the best artists in Australia are those who are not generally understood by the people,” means that there is something in their work quite unrelated to human needs This is, in every direction, such a basically false proposition and reveals such a hopelessly inadequate, narrow, limited and, above all, dogmatic approach that its enunciation by one who is, as I imagine, a Party member, is a most deplorable circumstance. It would be as sensible to say that because some complex piece of machinery is not generally understood by the people, therefore it is “quite unrelated to human needs.”

It is refreshing to find that H.M., in self-contradiction to the dogmatic spirit of much of his article, does advocate the education of the people towards the appreciation of art; but even this he takes from a purely one-sided point of view and blames the artist for not working with Trade Unions, etc., instead of it occurring to him to lay at least an equal blame on the Trade Unions for not working with the artist.

H.M. entirely misrepresents me when he says I am convinced that artists are doing all that can be done by remaining obscure. Nothing of the sort: I have no desire that the artists should remain obscure, though I did say that obscurity had been forced on the artist under capitalism. The obscurity of the artist is not a desirable thing, quite the contrary, and I believe that the majority of the important artists today are deeply implicated in all that is going on around them. If they are not actually integrated with the Communist Party itself, I would like to offer the suggestion that the Party should seriously consider whether this is not as much its fault as the fault of the artists.

H.M. holds up to use the example of the Soviet artist “because he understands the world he lives in and finds the means of conveying his knowledge to his fellow men.” This may, or may not be true, but assuming it is, it is quite irrelevant for our purposes because we are not the Soviet Union and our conditions are entirely different from theirs. However, I would go further and at least question H.M.’s arbitrary statement that Soviet art is good. Of the grounds H.M. has for saying that I do not know, I only sincerely hope he is right; but I confess that my own admittedly limited contacts with Soviet art have been almost universally discouraging. In the realm of music, Shostakovich appears to have achieved something of concrete validity (I am not qualified to say any more), but in the realm of literature very little has reach us which appears likely to leave any permanent mark, while the limited amount of painting I have seen (mostly through reproduction) I can only sum up as being deplorably dull. I freely admit that in all these spheres I have only limited judgement, and have had only limited access to Soviet art, but what I have seen makes me doubt the wisdom of the bold statement that “Soviet art is good,” and in any event, as I have pointed out, our own circumstances and life are so entirely different that it would be merely stupid to expect our artistic expression to take the same form as theirs.

Neither Max Brown nor H.M. fail to note my apparently precarious position in society “Torn between ruling and working class interests,” as Max Brown puts it — and I would be the last to deny the element of truth in this suggestion. The danger lies, in my opinion, in the tendency to draw erroneous conclusions from it, the most common being the essential undialectical one that because of a certain contradiction in a man’s make-up he is incapable of arriving at any valid conclusion — or, at any rate that he only does so when he happens to agree with you, otherwise he is just torn, etc. Now this, to [...], is a vicious form of argument which is only too common, but is productive of entirely barren results; it makes a fore-judging without any real attempt to arrive at objective values. The constructive point is whether my natural sensibilities have in fact been developed through the educational and leisure facilities I have been fortunate enough to receive by reason of my favored position. If so then there is a positive gain which should be availed of and which can possibly help to shorten the hard road of the working class towards a new and more vital culture.

Arbitrary and provocative statements about bourgeois “cultural” and “art” experts, such as appeared in the “Guardian” recently, only tend to widen the gap between the so-called “intelligentsia” and the working class and to breed mutual mistrust and suspicion in place of a [...] for co-operation and a recognition of common ideals.