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Paul O’Flinn

Craven and/or sinister

(July 1978)

From Socialist Review, No.4, July/August 1978, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Soviet Writers’ Congress 1934
Maxim Gorky, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, Andrey Zhdanov and others
Lawrence and Wishart £2.75

This volume of speeches delivered at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 is simultaneously a useful and a deeply disgraceful book.

Useful because it was at that Congress that Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, unveiled the theory of socialist realism that has clogged Soviet literature ever since. His crucial address to the delegates is here in full. So too is Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the USSR, an intriguing paper by Bukharin which ranges from an analysis of the language of poetry through a powerful assessment of Mayakovsky and others to end with a moving call for a communism that ‘aims at an infinitely diversified development of human wants’ including, among other things, a ‘new erotics’.

So, for these documents, much thanks. But the book is nonetheless a disgrace. Why? Because it is a facsimile reprint of a 1935 edition of the main Congress speeches with no added notes, commentary or introduction of any kind. The only new material is an ambiguous piece of blurb on the back cover that tells us that the Congress marked ‘the culmination of one of the richest periods of Soviet literary production’ and ‘summed up and closed this first momentous epoch’.

Culmination and close it certainly was. The Congress was held in August 1934, the month in which Stalin seems to have decided on the murder of Kirov, First Secretary of the Leningrad Party. That murder was carried out four months later and before the end of the year the arrests and executions had begun. Stalin’s massive purge was underway.

There were five main speakers at the 1934 Writers’ Congress and their words make up this volume – Zhdanov, Gorky, Radek, Bukharin and Stetsky. Gorky was the first to go, poisoned in June 1936 almost certainly on Stalin’s orders. Radek was next, arrested in September 1936, sentenced to an Arctic labour camp in 1937 and murdered there two years later. Bukharin followed, arrested in February 1937, tried and shot in March 1938. Stetsky too was arrested in 1937 and later shot.

Only the appalling Zhdanov survived, succeeding Kirov as Secretary of the Leningrad Party and purging it comprehensively. Later, as member of the Politbureau with special responsibility for propaganda, he was to be Stalin’s cultural hitman from 1938 till his own death in 1948.

All of this information is fairly easy to come by but none of it is here in this edition. It should be. To slide quietly over awkward truths, to palm off a document such as this without any attempt to acquaint readers with its context is to perform a huge disservice to the socialist movement.

I do not intend this to be read as a piece of routine sectarianism, bashing Lawrence and Wishart because of their links with the Communist Party. Every socialist is indebted to Lawrence and Wishart for the stream of valuable texts they have brought us over the years.

But what on earth are they doing when they reprint entirely without comment of any kind a lurid threat such as this one from Zhdanov: ‘Under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, the Party is organizing the masses for the final liquidation of capitalist elements ...’ – a threat that within a couple of years was to cost the lives of the bulk of the old Bolsheviks sitting listening to him? In what spirit is this sort of barbarism being offered to readers in 1978? Surely it would only be of value in the shape of an edition that made a rigorous attempt to come to terms with these proceedings, to salvage from them what is worthwhile and to signpost what is lethal.

What, for example, are we to make of the contribution of Bukharin, a man still not fully rehabilitated in the Soviet Union? His speech reads like an honest, if flawed and tentative attempt by someone already on the way out to think about a cultural policy that on the one hand doesn’t reduce poetry to rhymed versions of Central Committee minutes but is on the other hand centrally aware of the coining to power of the other Nazis in 1933 and the implications of that for the world and its writers. There’s still food for thought here, but it’s likely that the modern reader will miss it, stopped in his/her tracks several dozen pages earlier by Radek’s bovine chauvinism or by this sort of numbing rubbish from Zhdanov: ‘At the Seventeenth Congress of our Party, Comrade Stalin gave a masterful, unsurpassed analysis of our victories and the factors conditioning them ...’

To reprint chunks of mouldy Stalinism of that type with only the ambiguous recommendations of the blurb as comment is either a major miscalculation or gloomy evidence of that cultural thuggery that the socialist movement (not to mention the world) can do without. The decision to publish this book in this form is either craven or sinister. Probably it’s both.

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