- Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic
Socialist realism has recently experienced a rather astonishing revival through events such as the exhibit of socialist realist paintings organized by the New York Institute for [End Page 162] Contemporary Art under the title “Stalin’s Choice,” complete with the sale of Soviet medals, Red Army marching songs, and other memorabilia; the quaint little curio galleries of Soviet porcelain that have been displayed in major art museums; and, in the “new” Germany, the project to turn Eisenhüttenstadt, formerly Stalinstadt, into one gigantic outdoor museum of “GDR curiosities.” In this context, where socialist realism is once more called upon to function as the abject “other” of (Western) modernism, the translation of a book whose project is not to “denounce or glorify, but...to understand” (viii), as Leon Robel writes in his introduction, is only welcome. Opposed to any “caricatural version of socialist realism” (74) and the reductionism of theories of totalitarianism, Robin wants to import into the realm of the aesthetic the central insight of recent historical research on the 1930s, that even high Stalinism was not a monolith, but a complex and contradictory system (xxiii). However, since she also posits as her guiding question the inquiry into the “literariness” of socialist realism, she ends up reproducing the well-worn dichotomy of realism versus modernism, deploring the “historical impossibility” of “a Soviet Brecht” or a Soviet version of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch (xxvii).
Robin’s study is premised on the centrality of realism. In the first part of the book she engages in a detailed reading of the documents of the First Writers’ Congress of 1934, which officially adopted socialist realism as the new aesthetic doctrine. Robin’s aim is twofold: first, to argue against the commonplace view that this doctrine was imposed from above, and, second, to outline the debates about the “new realism” in all its contra-dictions. Although “the condemnation of Freudianism, Formalism, and modernism is taken for granted” and realism never questioned (13), Robin insists that other issues were strongly contested, especially the normative value of the “new realism” (19). In the second part, Robin traces the roots of socialist realism, its “discursive base” (81) in the “populist aesthetic” (149) and realist fiction of the nineteenth century: on the one hand, Robin focuses on a set of recurring statements in the writings of Belinski, Dobroliubov, Pisarev, and Chernyshevskii; on the other hand, she traces a “set of cultural images of ‘the hero’” (111) in several nineteenth-century Russian novels. Part 3 deals with the gradual establishment of the “cultural monologism” (162) of the 1930s. This involves first the move toward a “homogenization” of language (171); second the debates of the 1920s, which Robin argues resulted in both the elimination of modernism and the Zhdanovian “compromise” of 1934 (215); and third the construction of the “new man” (233) in literary discourse. According to Robin, the novels of the 1920s demonstrate that “the positive hero is not compatible with the aesthetic that has served as a framework for the problematic hero” (241), i.e., nineteenth-century realism. The final section of part 3 concentrates on an analysis of a relatively limited set of socialist realist novels. The actual readings are preceded by the elaboration of a narrative model of “five nodal vectors of monology that are necessary and sufficient” to categorize a text as part of the genre of “Soviet socialist realist novel of the 1930s” (264).
The book’s core thesis is that socialist realism represents an “impossible aesthetic.” Two different versions of this thesis run through the book, the first being that socialist realism is impossible because it tries to combine the verisimilitude of realism with the prescriptiveness of “revolutionary romanticism” (xxxi–xxxii); the second being that the socialist realist aesthetic is characterized by the fundamental tension between écriture, or “text effect,” and “thesis effect” (xxiii). This difference points to one of the book’s major problems, the shifting value of the category of realism. When derived from Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic...