Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
Political Economy of Socialist Realism

Political Economy of Socialist Realism

by Evgeny Dobrenko, Jesse M. SavageEvgeny Dobrenko


Current price is , Original price is $71.0. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


For decades Stalinist literature, film, and art was almost exclusively deemed political propaganda imposed from on high, devoid of any aesthetic significance. In this book, Evgeny Dobrenko suggests an entirely new view: socialism did not produce Socialist Realism to “prettify reality”; rather, Socialist Realism itself produced socialism by elevating socialism to reality status, giving it material form. Without art, socialism could not have materialized.

Bringing together the Soviet historical experience and Stalin-era art—novels, films, poems, songs, painting, photography, architecture, and advertising—Dobrenko examines Stalinism’s representational strategies and demonstrates how real socialism was begotten of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism, he concludes, was Stalinism’s most effective sociopolitical institution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300122800
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/16/2007
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Political Economy of Socialist Realism

Yale University Press
Copyright © 2007 Evgeny Dobrenko
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12280-0

Chapter One
Socialism as Will and Representation "You mustn't think now, comrade commissar!" Pukhov exclaimed. "Why not?" "There's not enough food for mental exertion: the ration is too small!" Pukhov elaborated. "Pukhov, you are a real trickster!" the commissar said, trying to end the conversation, and lowering his eyes into his current paperwork. "No, you are the trickster, comrade commissar!"

"Why?" asked the commissar absentmindedly, already engrossed in his paperwork. "Because it's not a thing you make, but a relationship!" Pukhov said, sadly recalling the posters that said that capital is not a thing, but a relationship. But Pukhov understood a relationship to be nothing. -Andrei Platonov, "The Innermost Man" ("Sokrovennyi chelovek")

Better minds than that of the commissar who was "engrossed" in his paperwork have sought the answer to the question of Platonov's hero. Roland Barthes's conclusion was as if addressed directly to the doubting Pukhov: "the authentic scientific phenomenon of modernity was not fact but relationship."

No, the commissar was not a trickster. He simply did not yet understand that it was actual things, not the things on his desk, that made Pukhov see the ration in the "relationship." But even the art of transforming this "nothing" into "fact" and a "thing" was not the ultimate goal. It still remained to satisfy with this ration. The art of transformation turned out to be the art of satiation, as well as that of production and consumption. In other words, this art had its own economy-the dimension to which this book is addressed.

Socialist Realism: A Machine for the Production of Socialism Spring had come again. Nightingales, robins, and chaffinches had begun to sing. The bird-cherry had started blooming. Cherry and apple trees were covered with the sweet-smelling foam of pinkish-white petals. The meadow beyond Moscow River had put on its green finery. And beyond the meadow, the silvery hymns of larks sounded convincingly for days at a time. I sadly parted with the hospitable Gorky. It had been true happiness, to create in an ideal setting: recalling countless times the great spiritual legacy of Marx/Engels/Lenin, the works of historians, philosophers, economists-the predecessors of scientific socialism-to find the key to understanding the natural properties of our complex reality. Not long before my departure, N. A. Peshkova and L. Tolstaia (Aleksei Nikolaevich's wife) visited at Gorky's. Until the wee hours we listened to their reminiscences and shared our thoughts with them about the two great titans of great Russian literature. On the eve of my departure from the Gorky's house, I again walked around Aleksei Maksimovich's memorial rooms. In the evening, we wandered along the bank of the Moscow River for a long time. The moon flooded the whole universe with a magical light. Frogs clamorously sang out their serenades. One could smell wet grass and fish. That night, the lilacs started blooming.

This exuberant Socialist Realist prose belongs by no means to a Stalin Prize winner, rather to Politburo member and secretary first of Stalin's, then of Khrushchev's, Central Committee, Dmitrii Shepilov. This grandly described night was his last in the house in Gorki, the one Gorky died in, and the one in which Shepilov and the group of economists he oversaw spent a whole year working on an economics textbook. The next day-just after the lilacs started blooming-proofs of the textbook lay on the desk of Stalin, who with "striking thoroughness" edited the text by annotating, moving parts around, and making words and whole chapters more specific, or changing them. (At precisely this time, Stalin was working on his own final "work of genius," Economic Problems of Socialism in the Soviet Union.)

There is a great deal of irony in the fact that the first and principal Soviet textbook of political economy (of which Stalin, by the way, personally changed the subtitle, so that the original Political Economy: Short Course became subtitled as Textbook) was written in the same rooms in which the "founder of Socialist Realism" spent his last years and died. Be that as it may-despite Stalin's proofing and correcting, maybe even because of it, this "political economy," especially the second part dealing with the economy of socialism, is in many respects a Socialist Realist text itself. Not of course in the sense of style-it has no lilacs blooming, no fragrant grass or singing nightingales-but on the level of its basic plot.

For instance, it is easy to understand why relations based on personal interest and private property under capitalism are connected with exploitation and competition, but it is almost impossible to explain why "socialist production relations are characterized by ... the establishment of relations of comradely cooperation and socialist mutual assistance." One can understand that, as Stalin asserted, "competition says: beat out those who have fallen behind, so as to assert one's own supremacy," but it is not so apparent why "socialist competition says: some work badly, others well, yet others better-catch up with the best and achieve a general increase." And why should one catch up and achieve? What happened to people and human nature?

It is not difficult to understand that competition and the struggle for profit and the consumer oblige a capitalist enterprise to constantly increase labor productivity and to seek out the most effective production methods. But, in the absence of market struggle, what lies at the heart of "the struggle of the new against the old, the newborn against those dying out, the progressive against the backwards"? Why is it necessary to "attentively support the shoots of the new, fortify them"? And why should one "wage an aggressive battle against all inert forces, against all kinds of manifestations of the backwardness, inertness, and routine that hinder the rapid development of socialist production"? What are the rational economic reasons for all these undoubtedly beautiful (to judge by the descriptions) actions?

It is clear what labor means under capitalism, but how is it that "socialism transforms labor into a matter of honor, valor, and heroism, lends it an ever more creative character," that "in a socialist society, the working man, if he works well, manifests initiative in improving production, armed with honor and glory," and that "this all creates new stimuli to labor that are unknown under capitalism"? How, instead of economic interests, are honor, heroism, valor, and glory suddenly transformed into stimuli to labor?

One need not of course seek the answers to these questions in Soviet reality, with its lack of stimuli to labor, nor in Soviet industry, with its backwardness. The people and relations that are described in Soviet political economy (wherein there is an ideological metalanguage) are very far from reality. On the other hand, they are directly linked to Soviet art, as in Ivan Pyrev's fairy tale films, wherein the heroes sing "We grew our wheat / For labor's honor." And they toil not only for honor's sake, but to win their beloveds' hearts, in fact demonstrating "stimuli to labor unknown under capitalism."

What in fact is lacking in the political economy of socialism, and what makes it magical, if not to say the most fantastic of all the Soviet social disciplines, is its idealism (that is, complete indifference to both human nature and to the laws of production) and its absence of logic in all these elevated constructs, which arises from an absence of motivation. In other words, it has no realism (since realism is motivation). When one reads these texts, one sees how the discourse of political economy returns to its roots: "The origin of political economy must be understood as a problem in the transmutation of the available languages of theology, jurisprudence, natural law, and only secondarily as a problem in the sociology of knowledge." Put differently, this discourse before one's very eyes begins to break down into morals and ethics, transforming itself into ... literature-the literature of Socialist Realism, in which one traditionally finds a deficiency of realism. The coincidence is by no means accidental.

Socialist Realism is included in the overall system of social functioning, since it is a substantial part of the Stalinist political-aesthetic project: the ideology that not only dominated economics, but also gave it meaning, was shaped in Socialist Realism itself. It is not simply one of the aspects of the system but, as will be shown later, a most significant part of the social machine whose operation spread to all aspects of life-from the factory to the novel, from the plant to the opera house, from the collective farm to the artist's studio.

Socialist Realism is a highly aestheticized culture, a radically transformed world. Nothing could break through its texture of pure aesthetics. For this reason, Soviet reality must not be read by scholars the way music is sight-read by musicians. Aesthetics did not beautify reality; it was reality. By contrast, all reality outside of Socialist Realism was but the wilderness of everyday life, waiting to be rendered fit to be read and interpreted.

The popular view of Socialist Realism as something in no way aesthetic, but instead purely propagandistic, is shared by scholars who hold quite opposing views of the subject. Socialist Realism's basic function was not propaganda, however, but rather to produce reality by aestheticizing it; it was the ultimate radical aesthetic practice. "Hiding" or "glossing over" truth, portraying it through representative types, "romanticizing" it, and the like are merely mechanisms of aestheticization. To aestheticize is to re-create the world, to transform it "according to the laws of beauty and harmony." This is why Socialist Realism must ultimately be examined as an aesthetic phenomenon.

If we were to remove Socialist Realism-novels about enthusiasm in industry, poems about the joy of labor, films about the happy life, songs and pictures about the wealth of the land of the Soviets, and so on-from our mental image of "socialism," we would be left with nothing that could properly be called socialism. Nothing would remain but dreary workdays, routine daily labor, and a life of hardship and inconvenience-the same reality that can be attributed to any other economic system. Thus once we "distill" Socialist Realism, there is nothing "socialist" left in the residue. Therefore, we may conclude that Socialist Realism produced socialism's symbolic values by derealizing everydayness.

The most popular composer of the Stalin era and author of its best songs and marches, Isaak Dunaevskii, wrote pianist Lidiia Neimark in 1949: "It is surprising how much romanticism we have in our lives at the end of the day in the industrial, laboring life of the people. Granted, this romanticism is unconscious. Rather, it is molded in literature and film as the synthesis of phenomena, as a result, and not as the conscious action of a high and individual organism. Everything that writers write, everything that artists draw or directors stage-this all looks romantic because firstly, it removes the dark, dirty, uninteresting side of phenomena, and secondly, it portrays the invariably romantic or heroic final result of the actions."

Of course, culture always produces substitutions, it is always also a dream factory; this is one of art's most important social functions. Almost without exception, however, these substitutions are either oriented toward the future or directed toward the past. The peculiarity of Soviet culture was that the object of the substitution was the here and now. This was a special kind of modality-not replacing the present with the future, but representing the future as the present. Whereas Futurism spoke of tomorrow, Socialist Realism laid claim not only (or even primarily) to tomorrow but to today. Everything that Socialist Realism produced already existed, had already taken place. That is why a radical aesthetic effort-one far more radical than that of Futurism-was required for this transformation of the present to appear convincing.

Socialist Realism continually produced new symbolic capital, namely, socialism. This seems to have been the USSR's only successful industry. One could say that Socialist Realism was the means for producing socialism. It was not a matter of Potemkin villages, or of "glossing over" or "brightening up" reality, but of replacing it with a new reality that became "the first phase of socialism," "developed socialism," "the early stages of communism," and so on.

Soviet society was precisely and above all a society of consumption: ideological consumption. Socialist Realism was a machine for transforming Soviet reality into socialism. That is why its basic function was not propagandistic but aesthetic and transformative par excellence. The mystical political economy of socialism, which lacks any foundation in human nature, can be understood only in terms of aesthetics. From the start, it was a project of the imagination and of political aesthetics.

The traditional view is that while the censors prevented the truth from being written, "artistic output" was being produced on a gigantic scale by what was supposedly an industry for manufacturing lies. We should keep in mind, however, that this enormous production of images, which occupied the entire Soviet media, began to shape not only the political unconscious but the entire sphere of the imaginary as well. Years later, for subsequent generations, all these images would become "the truth," for that is how people had come to see the world. What Socialist Realism produced was not "lies" but images of socialism that perception transformed into reality-namely, socialism.

If we describe this industry with the famous Marxist formula of "Goods-Money-Goods," we get "Reality-Socialist Realism-Reality." Except that after passing through the crucible of Socialist Realist mimesis, the new reality already was socialism.

The problem of the Soviet economy was always one of representation. Ideology filled the gaps in the system by supplying the feeling of happiness that was lacking, by providing-though, of course, only in the realm of the imaginary-the missing "surplus value," a sort of added symbolic value that was less than zero. This is how we should understand the oft-repeated notion that the Palace of Soviets-the Soviet Parthenon that was never actually constructed-was somehow built after all. The political economy of this socialism that was "built" or "completed" occupies center stage.

I see the mechanism of transformation as a succession of stages and forms: first, reality; then, its transformation in Socialist Realism through the creation of added value; finally, the fully transformed, "socialist" reality in which socialism was the surplus product. Whatever Soviet reality may have been-and it was mainly a system of personal power to which both collectivization and modernization were ultimately subordinated-the arts were required to turn it into socialism. It was precisely in the arts, through Socialist Realism, that Soviet reality was translated and transformed into socialism. In other words, Socialist Realism was a machine for distilling Soviet reality into socialism. This "artistic method" was also the real political economy of socialism in the USSR. Therefore, Socialist Realism should be regarded as the production of not only particular symbols but also of visual and verbal substitutes for reality. For this reason, Socialist Realism's function in the political-aesthetic project of "real socialism" was to fill the space of "socialism" with images of reality.

Socialist Realism as the Triumph of Creative Marxism

The definition of Socialist Realist production adopted herein is not a metaphor. As a matter of fact, Marxist methodology has been applied quite literally to the subject.

According to Marx, "the worker produces capital, and capital produces the worker; consequently, the worker produces himself, and the product of all this movement is a person as a worker, as a commodity." With a similar inevitability, Socialist Realism produces socialism, and the latter produces Socialist Realism. Consequently, Socialist Realism produces itself, and the product of this movement is socialist reality. Socialism is indeed the main product of Socialist Realism.


Excerpted from Political Economy of Socialist Realism by EVGENY DOBRENKO Copyright © 2007 by Evgeny Dobrenko. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews