Socialist Realism

By Michael Anderson

Walter Womacka, Our Life, mosaic (with metal addition) from East Berlin, 1964.

The term “Socialist Realism” was coined in a speech given in 1934 by Maxim Gorky. It was decided by Stalin and Gorky (among others) that Socialist Realism would be the official term for artistic expression in the U.S.S.R. Although Socialist Realism had developed as a style prior it was made the official style of the U.S.S.R. in 1932 and lasted until 1988.

Socialist Realism applied not only to visual arts but to literature as well. The goal of Socialist Realism was to replace the nihilistic and negative ideas present in realist and contemporary art and supplant them with positive ideas. These new positive ideas would lift and inspire the people. Socialist Realism as an artform would express socialist ideas and revolutionary optimism, generate hope and humanity among the people. Art that would replace the capitalist ideology that can be found within past literature, sculptures, paintings, and so on and replace it with the culture of the working class, peasantry, and revolutionary masses.

Gorky not only exalts working class art but condemns and gives reasons for his condemnations towards art under the bourgeoisie: 

“Bourgeois society, as we see, has completely lost the capacity for invention in art. The logic of hypothesis has remained, and acts as a stimulus only in the field of the sciences, based on experiment. Bourgeois romanticism, based on individualism, with its propensity for fantastic and mystic ideas, does not spur the imagination or encourage thought. Sundered, detached from reality, it is built not on convincingness of imagery but almost exclusively on the “magic of words,”  


Isaak Brodsky (1930) – Lenin in Smolny (first Central Committee location of the Soviet Union.) 

As well, Gorky puts the responsibility for the task of changing the culture of society onto the people themselves. Calling on each person to look within themselves to correct their own nature and criticize themselves in order to build new socialist relationships.

“In the Union of Socialist Soviets the workers and peasants government has called upon the whole mass of the population to help build a new culture – and it follows from this that the responsibility for mistakes, for hitches, for spoilage, for every display of middle-class meanness, for perfidy, duplicity and unscrupulousness lies on each and all of us. That means our criticism must really be self-criticism; it means that we must devise a system of socialist morality as a regulating factor in our work and our relationships.”

Socialist Realism was not just a matter for artists then but for society as a whole. In this new outlook on artistic expression we find the struggle against racism, the struggle for women, fathers, and children. Here are a few examples taken from Gorky’s speech in 1934 on these subjects.

For Children:

“The growth of the new man can be seen with especial clarity among children, yet children remain quite outside literature’s sphere of observation. Our writers seem to consider it beneath their dignity to write about children and for children.

I believe I will not be mistaken in saying that fathers are beginning to show more care and tenderness for their children, which, in my view, is quite natural, as children for the first time in the whole life of mankind are now the inheritors not of their parents money, houses and furniture, but of a real and mighty fortune-a socialist state created by the labor of their fathers and mothers.”

For Women:

“Reality is giving us ever more “raw material” for artistic generalizations. But neither the drama nor the novel has yet given an adequately vivid portrayal of the Soviet woman, who is distinguishing herself as a free agent in all spheres where the new socialist life is being built. It is even noticeable that playwrights are endeavouring to write as few women’s parts as possible. It is hard to understand why. Though woman in our country is the social equal of man, and though she is successfully proving the diversity of her endowments and the breadth of her capacities, this equality is all too frequently and in many ways external and formal. The man has not yet forgotten, or else he has prematurely forgotten, that for centuries woman has been brought up to be a sensual plaything and a domestic animal, fitted to play the part of “housewife.” This old and odious debt of history to half the earth’s inhabitants ought to be paid off by the men of our country first and foremost, as an example to all other men. And here literature should try to depict the work and mentality of woman in such a manner as to raise the attitude towards her above the general level of accepted middle-class behavior, which is borrowed from the poultry yard.”


Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina (1937)

Anti racism:

“Further, I deem it necessary to point out that Soviet literature is not merely a literature of the Russian language. It is an All-Union literature. Since the literatures of our fraternal republics, distinguished from ours only by language, live and work in the light and under the wholesome influence of the same ideas which unite the whole world of the working people that capitalism has torn asunder, we obviously have no right to ignore the literary creation of the national minorities simply because there are more of us than of them. The value of art is gauged not by quantity but by quality. “

As we have examined, Socialist Realism sets out to change the collective societies culture, using art and literature as another tool for the struggle of emancipation for oppressed peoples. The burden of change rests on the society itself through the hard work and self examination of the people regarding their own mindsets and prejudices. As well, leadership within the communist party has an important role in changing the culture of society. Party leadership that plays a role in literature Gorky surmises, must remove those who are hostile or indifferent to literature and replace them with those who are not only gifted with talent but also with those who can teach and rally and raise the consciousness of workers. 

“The Party leadership of literature must be thoroughly purged of all philistine influences. Party members active in literature must not only be the teachers of ideas which will muster the energy of the proletariat in all countries for the last battle for its freedom; the Party leadership must, in all its conduct, show a morally authoritative force. This force must imbue literary workers first and foremost with a consciousness of their collective responsibility for all that happens in their midst. Soviet literature, with all its diversity of talents, and the steadily growing number of new and gifted writers, should be organized as an integral collective body, as a potent instrument of socialist culture.”

A portrait of Stalin, progenitor of Leninism, giving a speech by Isaak Brodsky.

In conclusion, Socialist Realism is a rejection of the capitalist art forms which inevitably are poisoned with capitalist ideology and serve the bourgeoisie in favor of artistic expression that serves the interests of the people, of the workers, the oppressed, and the communist movement. Art that adds to the emancipation of humankind and assists in changing the culture in the U.S.S.R. into a socialist culture, not an individualist, capitalist driven culture. 

“Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family.”

In a state founded on the senseless and humiliating sufferings of the vast majority of the people, it is fitting that the creed of irresponsible self-will in word and action should be the guiding and vindicating principle. Such ideas as “man is a despot by nature,” that he “likes to be a tormentor,” that he is “passionately fond of suffering,” and that he envisions the meaning of life and his happiness precisely in self-will, in unrestricted freedom of action, that only this self-will will bring him his “greatest advantage,” and “let the whole world perish so long as I can drink my tea” – such are the ideas capitalism has inculcated and upheld through thick and thin.”

“Soldier-Liberator” by Yevgeny Vuchetich. Treptower Park Memorial, Berlin (1948–1949)

Quotations contained in this article from: Maxim Gorky; “Soviet Literature” speech given in 1934.

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