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JAMES ATLAS ON DAVID CAUTE: A POLEMIC 1 In keeping with the division of labor and refinement of disciplines that have become features of our complicated era, there now exists an academic field that could be called "Marxist aesthetics"; like the concentration of limited subjects or periods observable in literary studies, Marxism has been parcelled out among philosophers, economists, historians, and now litterateurs. Nor is this dissection of what was intended to be a political movement, drawing on the vast intellectual resources of its designers to chart a proper course through history, confined to the universities alone. I regard the glossary of terms appended to Louis Althusser's Pour Marx as a sign ofthis over-elaboration, this obsession with hermeneutics. Althusser appears to have succumbed to the aura of Parisian structuralism, with all its claims to "science" (motivated, in a sense, by jealousy, the real threat of having its concerns eclipsed); the result is a text that mimes the practice of Talmudic scholars; each difficult word, each phrase, collects interpretations, until the original lies buried beneath the crust of all its successive definitions. This isn't to suggest that we require no further illumination of Marx and Marxism; certainly the most influential thought of the 19th century, a body of work that shaped world history in our own, demands constant exposition. But it should be remembered that much of what Marx and Engels wrote was produced under pressure of immediate circumstances; so much of their work is taken up with arguments, proposals, refutations of books no longer read, political strategies, that its entire purpose tends to be subverted by later generalizing glosses. Yet there were few areas ofhuman experience left unexamined within the totality of their enterprise, and fewer about which we haven't received extensive comment since. And it's true that, in the revolutionary situations Marxism sponsored, all social activity had to be put in the direct service of the revolution, at least for a time. This meant that writers, either as active participants in the struggle or (more often) as nervous by-standers, were no more immune to the effects of sudden change than anyone else. The best literature and criticism to emerge from such conditions has nearly always recognized this "commitment" to be the case. While the Revolution of 1917 was still in Lenin's 123 hands, those writers who chose the option of socialism were able to produce a significant literature. Blok, Esenin, Mayakovsky . though divergent in their fervor, expressed the Revolution's character, if not always its immediate programs, while Trotsky, Bukharin, and Anatol Lunacharsky. the People's Commissar of Education, mediated between the Revolution's needs and the writer's natural tendency toward independence. Still, the Revolution had ended Russia's Silver Age of literature, forcing many of its greatest writers into exile. By 1922, Simon Karlinsky contends (in a Foreword to Triquarterly #27': Russian Literature and Culture in the West, I), "It became clear to those who cared about such things that the new Soviet government had confiscated Russian literature"'; what followed is too well-known to warrant more than a recital: the founding of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) in 1928; the First Soviet Writers' Congress six years later, where the doctrine of Socialist Realism was clarified and imposed; the decimation of the Acmeists. I recall this sequence of events only because the history of Russian writers after the Revolution often tends to become blurred, so that what emerges is a sense of constant oppression, initiated by Lenin and continuing to the present. The question of Lenin's own stance in regard to literature has lx?en endlessly debated, the text most often cited being the pamphlet Party Organization and Party Literature Typical of the attitude taken toward this tract is George Steiner's "Marxism and the Literary Critic", where he quotes the passage (admittedly out of context) in which Lenin insisted that "Literature must become Party literature . . . Literature must become an integral part of the organized, methodical, and unified labors of the socialdemocratic Party." To these remarks Steiner traces the origin of "militant partiality" that led to Socialist Realism. Steiner's quote is judiciously chosen, but it ignores...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 123-131
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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