Home Arts & Culture An introduction to the life and times of Maxim Gorki

An introduction to the life and times of Maxim Gorki

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Celebrating 152 years since the birth of the great Soviet writer and pioneer of socialist realism. The following presentation was given by Paul Cannon to the Stalin Society in London on 16 December 2018.

Gorki discussing an issue with Lenin.

“Forty years in the literary career of a great writer will always cover a large area on the ever-growing map of world culture. It is only at a distance that such a mountain range can be evaluated as a whole.” (Maxim Gorky by Anatol Lunacharsky, 1932)

On literature

Our Marxist politics tend to dictate that we spend the majority of our reading time on subjects such as political economy, philosophy, history and contemporary developments in world politics. Less time is found to read novels, poetry, short stories and folk tales, whether they are from the period before or the period after the 1917 proletarian revolution in Russia.

The occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky this year gives us an opportunity to remember not only him but also the times in which he lived and the contribution he made in developing the artistic method of socialist realism.

The oldest tales of mankind differ very much from the modern-day bourgeois literature in both composition and content. The oldest tales were spoken, passed from generation to generation; they were the unwritten stories of ancient man. Speaking of the development of the written word, Gorky remarked: “The history of the development of individualism is given with splendid fullness and lucidity in the history of literature.”

Speaking to the Soviet writers’ congress in 1934, he said: “It is most important to note that pessimism is entirely foreign to folklore, despite the fact that the creators of folklore lived a hard life; their bitter drudgery was robbed of all meaning by the exploiters, while in private life they were disenfranchised and defenceless. Despite all this, the collective body is in some way distinguished by a consciousness of its own immortality and an assurance of its triumph over all hostile forces. The hero of folklore, the ‘simpleton’, despised even by his father and brothers, always turns out to be wiser than they, always triumphs overall life’s adversities.”

The general development of literature, from the period of ancient Greece all the way up to modern times, charts the development of moral, ethical and philosophical characteristics that man displays through his evolving relationship to the means of production and with other men. Literature records this process, and since literature reflects the social conditions of the world in which it is written, it cannot but record the emergence of classes and the corresponding relations between them.

There are those who would like us to believe that ancient man spent his time pondering upon the stars, the meaning of life and the ‘thing in itself’. But only with the emergence of class society and a surplus produced by the labouring population did it become possible to live the life that we imagine as the classic life of a ‘philosopher’ – a man freed from the toil necessary to reproduce what he needs to live the next day.

The toiling man was thinking only about his labour: how to reduce his labour, perfect his technique and lighten his heavy load. It is inconceivable that man, by his ‘nature’, and certainly in his primitive mode of life, had the time and inclination to gaze for very long at himself and conclude that he had been born in the wrong body, was destined for ‘greater things’, or was a part of some grand universal scheme that would elevate him to immortality.

Maxim Gorky remarked that God himself was the artistic generalisation of the achievements of labour, and has had a persistent relationship with toiling mankind only because of the burden of exploitation:

“God, in the conception of primitive man, was not an abstract concept, a fantastic being; but a real personage, armed with some implement of labour, master of some trade, a teacher and fellow-worker of men … The fact that man created god in his own image goes to prove that religious thought had its origin not in the contemplation of nature, but in social strife. We are quite justified in believing that the raw material for the fabrication of gods was furnished by the ‘illustrious men’ of ancient days. Thus, Hercules, the ‘hero of labour, the ‘master of all trades’, was ultimately exalted to the seat of the gods, Olympus.” (Speech on Soviet literature, 1934)

Just as the man spoke to himself and with speech organised his production and trade, so through speech, through incantations and prayers, he attempted to speak to the gods. The development of the written word reflects this and signals the importance of the written word and language from ancient civilisation until today.

Marxism recognises these reasons and takes an interest in the history of literature and its ongoing development. Marxism is concerned with the class content of literature, with the development of its form. In particular, Marxism Leninism was able to demonstrate in practice in the USSR that the literature of the peoples of the various republics was a powerful tool by which to unite the formerly oppressed peoples of different nations, differing languages and cultures into one Soviet family.

Origins of Russian realism and the new type of Russian hero

Oh, shake and shiver, tyrants of the world!
But lend an ear, ye fallen slaves.
Gain courage and arise!

– Ode to Liberty by Alexander Pushkin

The movement in the arts that is described as realism is of particular interest to us because it laid the groundwork for the future development of what came to be known as socialist realism. Realism of a type can be seen as far back as ancient mythology, which, although fantastic, was essentially realistic.

How so, you might ask? Gorky believed that the ‘religious’ aspect of ancient man’s mythology was a mere artistic expression of abilities and powers that the labour process was divining in mankind. Idealising these abilities – turning men into gods of wine and brewing for example – far from being a mere fantasy, placed labour on a pedestal and foresaw the mighty development of man’s technique and cultural growth. Mythology was essentially, in his view, realistic.

The realism of the Russian literary and artistic movement in the 1800s was directly related to a general trend away from romanticism in general, and in literature away from a movement referred to as pseudo-classicism by the Soviets. ‘From Pushkin to Gorky’ is how Lenin summed up this history of Russian literature.

The content and form of pseudo-classicism was a hangover from backward feudal artistic traditions; it was opposed to a truthful depiction of Russian life and was used in the service of the aristocracy, whom it glorified. The beginning of the period for our purposes may be traced to the acknowledged father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin was born into a noble family. One of his ancestors, Abram Hannibal, had been kidnapped from Africa and given to Peter the Great as a gift. To this day there remains debate over the origins of Hannibal – he was either from Eritrea, Ethiopia or Cameroon. The upshot is that statues to Hannibal and Pushkin have been erected all over that region of Africa. (For those interested in learning more, we recommend reading The Moor of Peter the Great.)

Pushkin wrote a famous poetic story dedicated to Peter entitled The Bronze Horseman. A statue of the bronze horseman can still be seen in St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), and the poem tells the epic tale of Peter juxtaposed with that of a common man, Yevgeni. Yevgeni is the hero of the poem and his struggle against the bronze horseman foresees the coming mass democratic-revolutionary movement against the tsarist autocracy.

It was to such a subject that Pushkin gave his talents – poems and stories celebrating the Decembrists (early Russian revolutionaries) and the lives of ordinary Russians, whilst at every opportunity lashing out at feudalism in uncompromising terms:

Without heeding tears or moans,
By fate elect to ruin people,
The savage lords, by brutal arbitrary rule,
By whip and birch, appropriate
The peasant’s labour, property and time.
Bent on the plough that’s not his own,
Submitting to the whip, the haggard slave
The furrows treads of his relentless lord.
All drag their miserable yoke here till their grave.
All hope and tender feeling stifling in their bosom,
Here budding maidens grow and bloom
For the indulgence of the callous scoundrel.

Pushkin, a revolutionary and the foremost talent of his age, like Gorky, took great care to encourage young writers and assist in their development. He was instrumental in bringing forward Nikolai Gogol, to whom he supplied the plot for a poem that later developed into his famous novel Dead Souls.

In Confessions of an Author, Gogol wrote: “When I began to read to Pushkin the first chapters of Dead Souls in the old version … Pushkin, who always used to laugh at my reading, became gradually gloomier and gloomier and finally, he became very gloomy. After the reading was over he said in an anguished voice: ‘My God, how sad our Russia is.’”

After Pushkin

Pushkin and Gorky, and the realists and revolutionaries who came in between them, developed a new type of literature that vocalised the strivings of ordinary people. Realism in art and literature have taken in the broadest sense was, therefore, a revolutionary development, helping to awaken the masses and pushing the intellectuals towards support for the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

Realism, which sought to portray people and places as they really were, varied greatly between artists, writers and poets. Some were decidedly more revolutionary and romantic than others, but all helped to develop, in varying ways and to varying degrees, the Russian revolutionary movement – Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev all played a role in this process.

And whilst it is Pushkin and Gogol in particular who are so loved by communists, Lenin was, despite his differences with Tolstoy, at pains to point out the genius of the writer and his contribution to Russian literature.

In a number of articles specifically discussing Tolstoy, Lenin wrote: “Tolstoy’s books reflect both the strength and the weakness, both the sweep and the limitation of precisely a peasant mass movement. Tolstoy’s flaming, passionate and often ruthlessly sharp protest against the government and the police-crown church, transmits the mood of the primitive peasant democracy in which mountains of rage and hatred have been heaped up by centuries of serfdom, of despotism and looting by functionaries, of Jesuitism, fraud and rascality on the part of the Church …

“But the flaming protestant, the passionate exposer, the great critic reveals together with this in his books a lack of understanding of the underlying causes of the crisis and of the means to emerge from the crisis that was advancing in Russia, a lack of understanding that is peculiar only to a patriarchal naive peasant and not to a writer with European education.

“In him, the struggle against the feudal and police government and the monarchy was transformed into a denial of politics, led to the doctrine of ‘non-resistance to evil’, and led to his standing completely apart from the revolutionary struggle of the masses in 1905-7. His struggle against the crown-church was superimposed upon his preachment of a new and purified religion, that is to say, of a new, purified, and subtler poison for the oppressed masses.

“His denial of private ownership of land led not to a concentration of the entire struggle against the real enemy, the feudal landowners and their political instrument of power, ie, the monarchy, but to visionary, nebulous and impotent sighing. The exposure of capitalism and the miseries inflicted by it upon the masses went side by side with an absolutely apathetic attitude to the world emancipatory struggle that the international socialist proletariat is waging.” (An appraisal of Leo Tolstoy by VI Lenin, 1910)

And further: “The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. On the one hand, we have a great artist, the genius who has not only drawn incomparable pictures of Russian life but has made first-class contributions to world literature. On the other hand, we have the landlord obsessed with Christ.

“On the one hand, the remarkably powerful, forthright and sincere protest against social falsehood and hypocrisy; and on the other, the ‘Tolstoyan’, ie, the jaded, hysterical sniveller called the Russian intellectual, who publicly beats his breast and wails: ‘I am a bad wicked man, but I am practising moral self-perfection; I don’t eat meat any more, I now eat rice cutlets.’”

And: “Take the soldiers’ insurrections in 1905-6. In social composition, these men who fought in our revolution were partly peasants and partly proletarians. The proletarians were in the minority; therefore the movement in the armed forces does not even approximately show the same nationwide solidarity, the same party consciousness, as were displayed by the proletariat, which became social-democratic as if by the wave of a hand.

“Yet there is nothing more mistaken than the view that the insurrections in the armed forces failed because no officers had led them. On the contrary, the enormous progress the revolution had made since the time of the Narodnaya Volya [a 19th-century peasant revolutionary movement] was shown precisely by the fact that the ‘grey herd’ rose in arms against their superiors, and it was this self-dependency of theirs that so frightened the liberal landlords and the liberal officers.

“The common soldier fully sympathised with the peasants’ cause; his eyes lit up at the very mention of land. There was more than one case when the authority in the armed forces passed to the mass of the rank and file, but determined use of this authority was hardly made at all; the soldiers wavered; after a couple of days, in some cases a few hours, after killing some hated officer, they released the others who had been arrested, parleyed with the authorities and then faced the firing squad, or bared their backs for the birch, or put on the yoke again – quite in the vein of Leo Tolstoy!” (Tolstoy as the mirror of the Russian revolution by VI Lenin, 1908)

Birth of Maxim Gorky

“He dipped his pen in the fountain of life which had its source in the incoming tide of the revolution.” (Maxim Gorky by Anatol Lunacharsky, 1932)

Of all the Russian writers who came after Pushkin, Maxim Gorky stands the tallest. Born in 1868, young Maxim, through bad luck, was soon thrust into a life of poverty. His father’s death at a tender age resulted in Gorky being given over to his grandmother to raise, but it was not long before the boy was homeless and living a life on the road.

Famous novels by Gorky such as My Childhood and My Universities depict many scenes from his early life where he essentially toiled as a proletarian on barges and steamships, in factories and on quaysides. Gorky met a great variety of the working people of Russia, traversed huge tracts of the country as he passed from one job to the next. Crucially, he joined the Marxist revolutionary movement, developing his journalistic and literary craft, and somehow kept in with a wide section of the Russian literary intelligentsia despite his singularly proletarian view on life:

“The genuine, incontestable truth of history is that the whole life of the workers and peasants is nothing but a struggle of people without arms, education, or rights against people armed with all the knowledge of science, and holding absolute rights to plunder other men’s labour.” (The people must know their history! by Maxim Gorky)

Gorky’s literary efforts date back to the early 1890s. From the start, he wrote stories and essays in newspapers and magazines that captured the attention of the reading public. Newspapers were becoming more numerous, and the revolutionary movement was developing. The History of the CPSU(b) recalls that by 1895-99, according to incomplete data, 221,000 workers took part in strikes compared to 81,000 in the period 1881-86.

This development undoubtedly contributed to the remarkable growth in demand for the stories, plays, poems and essays of Maxim Gorky, which told of the hardships of working people but gave the hope of a better life still to come. Summing up the period and the emergence of Gorky as a leading literary figure, Anatol Lunacharsky remarked

“Capitalism, which oppressed the country both by its maturity and immaturity, was dangerously ill. It was grieved. It was tortured by terrible premonitions. It was full of fear and divarication [tribulation]. It had its connivers, its oppressors and pessimists, but all of them carried the stamp of doom on their faces. This giant in golden armour, but weak of heart, had not been born to a long and happy life.

“The further growth of capital continued to oppress the villages mercilessly. But it was not their groans that filled the new and powerful artistic organ and the many organ pipes of the young Gorky.

“His social standing made him more familiar with the stagnant, swampy, tortured society of the city petty bourgeoisie, gripped as it was by rigid routine and overflowing with strange characters.

“They were Gorky’s first subjects. He chose as his theme one of the city’s strangest phenomena, the tramps, and then, in time, turned to the proletariat.

“As we listen keenly to Gorky’s music, from its very inception, we can but laugh as we reject the superficial and, I would say, silly little theories that Gorky was a writer of the lower-middle classes.

“Following in Lenin’s giant footsteps, we can say that Gorky’s indomitable, turbulent, rainbow-bright joy of life, which burst forth from his very first lines, was not of the lower-middle classes. Nor is his merciless indignation at the ruling evil of the middle class; nor is his firm belief in man, in his mighty culture, in his coming victory; nor is his bold call for courage and his stormy petrel, heralding the coming revolution, of the middle class. None of this is of the lower-middle classes – all are of the proletariat.” (Maxim Gorky)

In 1900, Gorky’s story Tradesmen reportedly sold out in 15 days, having had a print run of 25,000. His works The Lower Depths, The Petty Bourgeois and Children of the Sun were also hugely popular. Of all his early works, his poem Song of the Stormy Petrel was typical in its hopeful and defiant symbolism, which struck a chord with the awakening masses:

It’s the storm! The storm is breaking!
Still, the valiant Stormy Petrel proudly wheels among the lightning, o’er the roaring, raging ocean, and his cry resounds exultant, like a prophecy of triumph –
Let it break in all its fury!

His words appealed to the workers who were awakening, and to the revolutionary students and intellectuals who craved liberty from despotism.

At the turn of the century, Gorky was resident once again in Nizhny Novgorod. In the city, a committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had been formed in 1901. Amongst its number was Jacob Sverdlov, a future leader of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Everywhere Gorky went the revolutionary movement blossomed.

In Nizhny, in collaboration with his friend Somov, Gorky had purchased all the books for a ‘home library’ operated by a supporter of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Jacob Sverdlov had studied books from their list, many of which were semi-legal or prohibited.

Taking a decision to exile Gorky from Nizhny, the police files recorded “his harmful influence on society … his influence amongst the workers generally may manifest itself in a form that is most undesirable”. Gorky was to be exiled and denied the right to live in a large city – or even any city with a university.

The local committee of the RSDLP organised a send-off for Gorky at the railway station that was described in the memoirs of Claudia Sverdlov:

“Gorky’s appearance on the railway platform was the signal for a thunderous roar of: ‘Long live Maxim Gorky!’, ‘Down with despotism!’, ‘Damn the forces of darkness!’”

Someone started singing a revolutionary song. Others joined in. This was followed by Dubinushka (a shanty) and You Fell Victim. Members of the secret police hurried to dispatch the train as quickly as possible. Two gendarmes were stationed at the entrance to Gorky’s coach.

When the demonstrators left the railway station, they marched along the main street of the town – Bolshaya Pokrovka – singing revolutionary songs. The number of people participating increased rapidly. The gendarmes, who had not expected such an organised demonstration, lost their heads completely and found themselves helpless to stop the marchers. A meeting was held in front of the building of the city duma (parliament) and one of the demonstrators, in a youthful, resonant voice that rang out clearly above the noise of the street, addressed the crowd of workers and artisans who had gathered about him:

“‘Gorky has been exiled’, he said, ‘for the same reason that thousands of the finest people of the land are perishing in prisons, in penal servitude and in exile – for telling the truth and exposing the monstrous conditions of our life. He had one weapon – his pen, one force – his thought, expressed in free speech, and for that free speech he has been exiled. Those who forced him to clear out consider that he exerted a bad influence on the public here, on the younger generation. But we say that his influence was good, and we want this demonstration of ours to show how much we love Gorky for that free speech of his.’

“The demonstration ended with a university student solemnly reciting: ‘Tyranny shall fall, and the people, great, mighty and free, shall rise!’”

Lenin’s newspaper Iskra quickly responded to this event in the revolutionary life of the people. In an article entitled Demonstrations have begun, Lenin wrote:

“We see that demonstrations are being revived on the most varied pretexts in Nizhni-Novgorod, in Moscow and in Kharkov. Public excitement is growing everywhere, and the necessity to combine this into a single stream against the autocracy, which everywhere sows tyranny, oppression and violence, becomes more and more imperative.

“On 7 November a small but successful demonstration was held in Nizhni-Novgorod, which was caused by a farewell gathering in honour of Maxim Gorky. An author of European fame, whose only weapon was free speech – as a speaker at the Nizhni-Novgorod demonstration aptly put it – is deported by the autocratic government from his home town without trial or investigation.” (Iskra No 13, 20 December 1901)

Another item in the same number of Iskra, entitled ‘News of the revolutionary struggle’ stated: “Korsak, a former university student, and Sverdlov, a former high school student, were arrested in Nizhni on 3 December on suspicion of having participated in the demonstration of 7 November.”

Following his departure from Nizhny, Gorky was appointed an academician of literature, but this appointment was annulled by Tsar Nicholas II, who was appalled at the move. In protest, Gorky’s friend, the writer Anton Chekov, resigned his own position at the academy.

The persecution of the police and tsar did nothing to reduce Gorky’s fame and popularity, which now reached far outside of Russia to Europe. During the 1905 revolution Gorky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress in Petersburg, his apartment in Moscow was used as a meeting place of the Bolsheviks, and when he subsequently left Russia in the period of reaction, he took with him Jacob Sverdlov’s brother Zinovy Sverdlov.

He adopted Zinovy as his son (in all likelihood for revolutionary-practical reasons), and the two of them toured America with Gorky’s common-law wife, where it is rumoured they raised funds for the Bolshevik party from dinner speeches and public engagements before being harassed for having received public declarations of support from various American revolutionaries and socialists.

[As an aside, it may be of interest to readers to know that Jacob Sverdlov’s brother Zinovy, after being adopted by Gorky, worked with him as an assistant in Capri before leaving to live in France. There he became a captain in the French army during WW1, was sent by France to Moscow after the revolution and brought with him the French government’s recognition of Admiral Kolchak as leader of Russia. Meanwhile, Sverdlov’s father, an engraver, employed Henrik Yagoda as an apprentice in his workshop. Yagoda went on to marry Ida Averbakh (Sverdlov’s niece), whose brother Leopold Averbakh became the foremost leader of the RaPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which was liquidated by decision of the central committee of the CPSU(b) in 1932 and replaced with the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1934 under the direction of Andrei Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky and Alexander Schcherbakov.]

The October Revolution and Russian literature, 1917-30

The Great October Socialist Revolution ushered in a period of tremendous creative activity in literature as it did in all the arts. Perhaps something approximate to a hundred schools of thought began to contend, and even a few flowers began to bloom amongst the weeds. From this early period emerged such stars as Nikolai Ostrovsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Mikhail Sholokhov – these are some of the names many of our readers will know.

However, the period from 1917 until 1932 saw heated debate regarding what should be the tasks of Soviet literature and Soviet literary criticism, and what should be the role of Soviet writers. The early period after the revolution and the anti-working-class positions adopted by many intellectuals are still held up today by Trotskyites and idealists as the true blossoming flower of the revolution.

Writing in the Guardian in March 2017, Tariq Ali sneered:

“The classicism that was so deeply rooted in Lenin acted as a bulwark to seal him from the exciting new developments in art and literature that had both preceded and accompanied the revolution. Lenin found it difficult to make any accommodations to modernism in Russia or elsewhere. The work of the artistic avant-garde – Mayakovsky and the constructivists – was not to his taste.

“In vain did the poets and artists tell him that they, too, loved Pushkin and Lermontov, but that they were also revolutionaries, challenging old art forms and producing something very different and new that was more in keeping with Bolshevism and the age of revolution. He simply would not budge. They could write and paint whatever they wanted, but why should he be forced to appreciate it?”

These words of Tariq Ali seek to conceal from the reader the real state of affairs in Soviet literature, and Lenin’s attitude towards them. This is because Trotskyism worships revolutionary slogans; it champions that which appears to be revolutionary but in essence, is reactionary and backward. Ali, as an opportunist and a scoundrel, has spent his career misdirecting the youthful excesses of new blood that comes into the movement.

It is an old trick to pit ‘the new’ against ‘the old’, to champion naivety instead of harnessing youth’s energy and adding it to humanity’s general reserve of experience. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is an old tactic of Trotskyite politics. How can one criticise Lenin’s attitude to the early excesses of Mayakovsky and similar revolutionary poets when they write, as Mayakovsky did:

“Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc, etc overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” and: “All those Maxim Gorkys, Krupins, Bloks … need only a dacha on the river. Such is the reward fate gives tailors. From the heights of skyscrapers, we gaze at their insignificance!” (A slap in the face of public taste, 1917)

Such excesses should not be held up as something to emulate but as something to overcome. Tariq Ali, with an ego as big as that of a youthful Mayakovsky, chooses to use this as an avenue to attack Lenin and Leninism. He writes: “Many of Lenin’s colleagues were more sympathetic to the new movements. Bukharin, Lunacharsky, Krupskaya, Kollontai and, to a certain degree, Trotsky understood how the revolutionary spark had opened up new vistas.”

These are heroes of Ali’s because some of them for a short while found themselves at some point in time in the camp of the ‘opposition’, while others landed up in the camp of downright counter-revolutionaries and conspirators, as Trotsky and Bukharin did.

Ali states: “Lenin was also hostile to any notion of ‘proletarian literature and art’, insisting that the peaks of bourgeois culture (and its more ancient predecessors) could not be transcended by mechanical and dead formulae advanced in a country where the level of culture, in the broadest sense, was far too low. Shortcuts in this field would never work, something that was proved conclusively by the excremental ‘socialist realism’ introduced in the bad years that followed Lenin’s death. Creativity was numbed.”

How the creative output of Sholokov, Gerasimov, Brodsky and Eisenstein can be labelled excremental by this third rate flunkey of imperialism is anybody’s guess. No doubt he is comparing them to his own monumental films: Iranian Nights and Partition, or maybe his 1988 magnum opus, Time to Bury Lenin.

For our part, we see that the critical assimilation of the heritage of previous epochs helps us to find our feet, helps us to know that the present deplorable state of affairs is but transitory, and opens up a vision of a much brighter, happier future.

The civil war, 1917-22

The civil war produced works both good and bad, some of which, though essentially truthful, served the enemies of socialism because their authors were not tendentious, refusing to forcefully take sides, and could see only the cruelties of war and the backwardness of Russian workers, soldiers, sailors.

Many of these writers were innocent victims of bourgeois attitudes in art; others later joined the counter-revolutionary tide opened up by Nikita Khrushchev.

The honest section of writers who erred was unable to envisage the bright future that lay beyond the harsh realities of the civil war period. Such books of that period are still to be found on bookshelves in Waterstones as they remain useful to the counter-revolution and to anti-Soviet propaganda. Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel is one such collection of stories. These books are used to spread pessimism and a ‘plague on both your houses’ attitude towards the revolution amongst readers.

Despite the existence of this trend, a different movement was to be observed amongst many soldiers. In the battalions that formed up to fight for Soviet power, new voices were heard from amongst the national minorities, and a new multinational Soviet poetry began to make itself heard.

In many towns, there were so-called ‘Proletcults’ – that is, organisations of proletarian culture – established, with some little state assistance. These organisations were not lasting, but a number of proletarian poets were trained in the circles of Proletcult. The proletcultists wrote about the revolution, giving it cosmic dimensions:

We are the numberless menacing legions of Labour. We conquered the seas, the oceans and lands;
The rays of our artificial suns have set fire to towns, And our proud souls burn with the flames of revolt.
The sinews of our arms thirst for gigantic work
Our collective heart burns with the pains of creation; The combs we will fill with marvellous honey;
For our planet a brilliant new path we shall find

– Vladimir Kirilov

Like the poets and civil war soldiers, Romain Rolland saw the great promise of the new horizons opened up by Soviet power. The French dramatist wrote:

“To the young bourgeois intellectual of the last third of the nineteenth century a free and broad, vigorous individualism was the highest human value and the advance post of mankind; its aim was to draw after itself the rest of the army on the road of progress and oppose the encroachments of the forces of reaction: the state, the church, university education – all impediments that retard the march … The world war of 1914 hastened my liberation from all the prejudices of the period of bourgeois nationalism of which I had yet imperfectly rid myself …

“I nevertheless did not give up hope of individualism of the spirit, which … would stand above all nations and parties. and which would retain disinterested objectivity, being a sort of scientific observation post which would throw a searchlight on the march of mankind. It is, of course, understood that this lighthouse was to help promote the advanced parties and primarily the revolution. Besides, I imagined this lighthouse not a tower of ivory, but an outpost from which the observers take part in the battle. He who sees injustice or a crime being committed and evades the struggle against it – is an accomplice. A thought which does not evince itself in action is either an abortion or a traitorous thought.

“The vast majority of the intelligentsia understood independence of spirit as a privileged position protected from danger so that several hundred chosen ones would enjoy exceptional privileges without having any obligations to society …

“The final rift came in 1927-8. It coincided with the beginning of the mobilisation of the moral and intellectual forces of the old world carried out by the international fascist reaction against the USSR which was fortifying its constructive powers. It was no longer possible to waver … And in the last volumes of my cycle of novels, The Soul Enchanted, I tried to depict the evolution and the inner struggle which leads from complete individualism to the proletarian revolution … And now I shall answer in detail as to my opinion on Soviet literature:

“I am interested most in its general line: I am happy that as opposed to the worship of art for art’s sake, as opposed to the aesthetic narcissism of the west, so vainglorious and infantile, immersed in the contemplation of its own banal, rouged beauty, fenced off from any breath of the world of life with its hardships and struggles – I am happy that Soviet literature is at once art and action, that this action is reflected in art and art throws back the light of action depicted by it, that it multiplies its strength, stimulates it, glows with its light.”

The essence of these feelings is neatly contained in a civil war poem by Alexander Bezymensky. In a poem addressed to other poets, Bezymensky points out in a very realistic manner the task confronting the gallant red soldiers, and which many of them took up – namely, to become literate and build the new socialist society once the fighting and heroism of the war had come to a close:

It would be ridiculous not to see
The Red Army,
Or the lightning
Of the October storm;
But sing about the Red Army soldier in the barracks
Who in the name of Revolution is learning his ABC.

Such was the reality of the proletarian revolution that Babel was unable to grasp.

When Maxim Gorky sat down to organise and edit a History of the Civil War he wrote:

“The history of the civil war is the history of the triumph of a great truth embodied in the working class. This history should be familiar to every fighter on the front of the cultural revolution, to every builder of the new world …

“This will be a book within the understanding of every reader, even one lacking in education. To make it easy to read, the best of our writers who were at the front during the civil war, with rifle or pen, have been enlisted to handle the military material.

“This ‘history’ is needed not only by the old fighters who are now hard at work building socialism, breaking down the resistance of ancient human inertia and people’s mistrust of their own powers; it is needed not only to conjure up proud memories of their battles and victories. Our young generation needs it to learn the heroism of their fathers and to understand who were the men that fought for their cottage and cow, for the victory of the working class, for socialism. It is needed by the proletariat of all countries, the millions for whom the days of great battles are now not far distant. This book must be a vivid chronicle of heroism and must inspire heroism.

“At the same time it will be a real, veracious history of all the atrocities and havoc inflicted on our country by its former masters; it must show all the loathsome hatred felt by the beasts of prey who had had their claws cut and their teeth were drawn. It will show how shamelessly the factory owners and landowners destroyed the property of the people of their country. It will convince the good-natured and the soft-hearted that a capitalist is no longer a human being, but a creature in which an insane lust for profit has consumed every vestige of humanity. This ‘history’ must be a record of all the blood shed by the capitalists for the sole purpose of maintaining their accustomed conditions of life, the comfortable, delightful, thoroughly corrupt life of two-legged beasts fattening themselves on other people’s strength.

“This will be the book of our socialist truth, which has come to transform the old world and resurrect it into a new life.”

Literary controversies following the civil war

The formalists

For some time after the revolution, the Soviet Union’s chief literature consisted of pre-revolutionary literature and it was produced mostly in St Petersburg and Moscow. In these two principal cities lived the critics known as the formalists, who saw the study of literature and its forms as a way out of the revolutionary process.

Chief amongst the formalists was Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote: “Art has always been free from life and its colour does not reflect the colour of the flag that waves over the citadel.”

The Left Front in Art (LEF)

The group known as the futurists (especially the ‘Left Front in Art’, which included a dozen groups such the constructivists and ‘word production groups’, etc) included the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In a report prepared for the Soviet Writers’ Congress of 1934, Zelinsky wrote:

“The critical literature created by these left-front futurists can be considered part of the history of Soviet criticism as it reflected definite revolutionary tendencies. It expressed, however, mostly their attitude towards the revolution of those sections of the petty bourgeoisie which only saw the destructive side of the revolution.

“According to the French proverb the futurists wanted to be more royalist than his royal majesty the king. They came out with a theory of scrapping art as something borrowed and presumably unnecessary to the proletariat. ‘Art is the opium of the people’ – thus did they try to paraphrase Marx’s aphorism: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. And Mayakovsky wrote verse calling upon poets to cease writing verse.”

Indeed, at one time Mayakovsky and others argued that novels were a thing of the past, and so we’re no longer needed by the proletarian revolution. It was asserted that all that was now necessary was ‘factography’.

Gorky’s essays argued against such extreme positions, and in battle with these groups, he fleshed out and formulated further his ideas on the role of the novel, the tasks of socialist realism, and the direction that Soviet literature should take. Many of these articles can be read in widely published volumes available in English such as On Literature and Articles and Pamphlets.

The RaPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers)

The RaPP and groups of writers representing the extreme wing of the youth demanded of artists complete ideological consistency. At the head of the critics of RaPP stood Leonid Aberbakh, who berated talented (though very often excitable) poets like Mayakovsky in a brutal and unrelenting fashion.

The development of Soviet criticism was intimately connected with this association for a long period. These critics lashed those they considered to be fellow travellers and intellectuals, and others hammered ‘old Bolsheviks’.

The RaPP was acknowledged to have played a role in developing Soviet criticism, but generally, it was considered to have been too harsh and thus unable to guide the work of the emerging Soviet literature, to develop it or to inspire it to fulfil its task of inspiring the socialist construction of the USSR. Such critics caused Anatol Lunacharsky to remark:

“Especially disappointing was the insufficient attention the young leaders of proletarian literature paid to Lenin’s great behests on learning from the vast culture of the past.

“The dialectics here are very refined: since one must study critically, it means one must study and criticise! If you begin to study without a critical approach or with an insufficiently critical approach, you will find yourself among the epigone. If you begin to criticise without sufficient learning to back you up, you will not become a one hundred percent proletarian wunderkind, but Saltykov-Shchedrin’s ‘Neuvazhai Koryto’ [a vulgar self-opinionated loudmouth].

“Many were the times that, in my capacity as editor of encyclopaedias, magazines and collected works, I came upon such dim-witted criticism. And when you attempt to arouse in such a young, and at times very sincere and sympathetic ‘critic’, a feeling of respect for some great writer of the past, he will drop a rather heavy hint about the mistakes of some ‘venerable old’ Bolsheviks.”

In 1932, a decision of the CPSU(b) liquidated the RaPP.

Socialist realism and the writers’ congress, 1934

Enemies of Soviet power and socialism had ensconced themselves in many walks of Soviet life. Not only writers but literary critics and others associated with the world of theatre and music were either ambivalent towards socialism at best, or downright hostile at worst.

The Soviets had inherited the intellectuals of the period of tsardom, and many composers, writers, playwrights, screenwriters and artists held themselves aloof from the struggles of the working people and toiling peasantry. In the pursuit of their careers and artistic endeavours, they failed to develop a class outlook, and many thought that they could adopt a non-political attitude towards their work. Such a situation existed in many walks of life in the early years of the Soviet Union – for instance, amongst economists and educationalists.

The Bolshevik party expended huge efforts to create worker-intellectuals, encouraging writers and artists from amongst the working class, and staunchly defending the rights of the artists of the smaller republics who were not able to dominate the cultural life of the country in the way that those in St Petersburg and Moscow could.

The defence of the rights of the smaller nationalities was most fiercely conducted during the period of Josef Stalin’s leadership when emergent nations were assisted in constructing alphabets for languages that had never been written, where Uzbek and Kazakh poets could have collections translated into all the languages of the republics and distributed in as many copies as their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts.

In the years after the death of Stalin, wide-ranging freedoms were given to anti-Soviet authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anna Akhmatova. With their anti-Bolshevik writings, many ideologically weak writers exposed their bitterness towards the period of socialist construction and the policies of the CPSU(b) with regard to culture and the arts. These people always felt that it was not for the working class, through its vanguard the Bolshevik party, to direct the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich, or criticise the pessimism and idiocy of satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko.

These people believed that it was the artist’s absolute right to pollute socialist society with second-rate works of art, and that, in the end, only they – the artists – could pass proper judgement on their craft. The Bolshevik party of Stalin and Zhdanov, of Gorky and Bedny, did not hold such views.

In 1932, a decision of the central committee of the CPSU(b) declared:

“The central committee asserts that in recent years, on the basis of significant successes in socialist construction, there has been considerable growth, both qualitatively and quantitatively, in the spheres of literature and art.

“Several years ago, when there was still a strong influence of alien elements in literature, which flourished particularly in the first years of the NEP [New Economic Policy], and when the cadres of proletarian literature were still weak, the party, by all means possible, helped in the creation and strengthening of certain proletarian organisations in the spheres of literature and other forms of art, so as to firm up the position of proletarian writers and art workers.

“Now, when the cadres of proletarian literature and art have had time to grow, and when new writers have come forward from factories, mills and collective farms, the framework of the existing literary-artistic organisations … have become too narrow and are impeding the serious development of artistic creation.

“This situation creates the danger of transforming these organisations from a means of mobilising Soviet writers and artists around the tasks of socialist construction into a means of cultivating group insulation as well as isolation from the political tasks of the day and from large groups of writers and artists who sympathise with socialist construction.

“From this arises the necessity for an appropriate restructuring of the literary-artistic organisations and a widening of the bases of their work.

“Therefore, the central committee of the CPSU(b) resolves:

“(1) To liquidate the Association of Proletarian Writers (VOAPP, RAPP);

“(2) To unite all writers who support the platform of Soviet power and who strive to participate in socialist construction into a single Union of Soviet Writers with a communist faction in it;

“(3) To carry out an analogous change in policy for other forms of art;

“(4) To entrust the organisation bureau with working out the practical measure for implementing this decision.”

And so the offensive began. The task to completely overhaul the situation in Soviet literature fell to Maxim Gorky, and the Bolshevik party sent two of its foremost ideological workers to assist him – Andrei Zhdanov and Alexander Shcherbakov.

At the first congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union, held in 1934, Maxim Gorky presided. An attempt was made to formulate in the minds of the Soviet writers some concrete ideas about socialist realism. Mayakovsky, in an article entitled ‘Who has LEF got its teeth into’, had said:

“The classics have been nationalised.

“The classics were worshipped as the only thing to read.

“The classics were regarded as absolute, unshakeable art.

“The classics crushed everything new with the copper of their monuments and their school traditions …

“With all our might we shall fight against the transfer of dead writers’ methods of work to the art of today.”

A fitting Marxist response to such ideas was given by Zhdanov in his address to the congress:

“You have many different types of weapons. Soviet literature has every opportunity of employing these types of weapons (genres, styles, forms and methods of literary creation) in their diversity and fullness, selecting all the best that has been created in this sphere by all previous epochs. From this point of view, the mastery of the technique of writing, the critical assimilation of the literary heritage of all epochs represents a task which you must fulfil without fail if you wish to become engineers of human souls.”

Rather than throwing out the heritage of the past, dismissing that which had been good alongside that which had been bad, the Bolshevik party insisted upon its celebration and assimilation. Throughout the 1930s the party organised huge nationwide festivals to remember Pushkin and Gogol, erected statues to great literary figures and reclaimed Russia’s rich revolutionary traditions as her own.

Elaborating upon the method of socialist realism, Zhdanov said: “Our literature, which stands with both feet firmly planted on a materialist basis, cannot be hostile to romanticism, but it must be a romanticism of a new type, revolutionary romanticism.

“We say that socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet belles lettres [literature] and literary criticism, and this presupposes that revolutionary romanticism should enter into literary creation as a component part, for the whole life of our party, the whole life of the working class and its struggle consist in a combination of the sternest and sober practical work with a supreme spirit of heroic deeds and magnificent future prospects.

“Our party has always been strong by virtue of the fact that it has united and continues to unite a thoroughly business-like and practical spirit with a broad vision, with a constant urge forward, with a struggle for the building of communist society. Soviet literature should be able to portray our heroes; it should be able to glimpse our tomorrow. This will be no utopian dream, for our tomorrow is already being prepared for today by dint of conscious planned work.”

Addressing the delegates on Stalin’s famous phrase that writers should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, Zhdanov implored those non-party Bolsheviks, supporters of the socialist project as well as waverers, firmly to pick a side, to leave behind the illusion that it is possible to be ‘neutral’ and ‘non-political’:

“Comrade Stalin has called our writers engineers of human souls. What does this mean? What duties does the title confer upon you?

“In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as ‘objective reality’, but to depict reality in its revolutionary development.

“In addition to this, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic portrayal should be combined with the ideological remoulding and education of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism. This method in belles lettres and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.

“Our Soviet literature is not afraid of the charge of being tendentious. Yes, Soviet literature is tendentious, for in an epoch of class struggle there is not and cannot be a literature which is not class literature, not tendentious, allegedly non-political.

“And I think that every one of our Soviet writers can say to any dull-witted bourgeois, to any philistine, to any bourgeois writer who may talk about our literature being tendentious: Yes, our Soviet literature is tendentious, and we are proud of this fact, because the aim of our tendency is to liberate the toilers, to free all mankind from the yoke of capitalist slavery.”

An upsurge in the production of socialist literature

The period of the 1930s was one of intense ideological class struggle. Maxim Gorky personally led and supervised a mass collective effort to gather together the fragments of the history of the civil war and the history of industry in Russia. He did all this whilst continuing with his own literary creations and elaborating in letters his thoughts on how to develop the movement of socialist realism.

A literary institute was opened in Moscow at the same time as the holding of the writers’ congress. This institute is now the Maxim Gorky Institute, housing a small museum to his life. The purpose of the institute was to train and provide research materials for thousands of visiting Soviet writers.

Not only did the USSR promote the development of individual writers, it got to work on great collective projects in which to take stock of the collective experience of hundreds of thousands of workers and trained many to write.

A group of 32 school children from Irkutsk visited Gorky at the writers’ congress. They had collectively written the first book by children, entitled Base of Snub Nose, about their experiences as young pioneers. ‘Snub-nose’ referred to their diminutive features.

Gorky organised and led a team of military experts and veterans including Kliment Voroshilov, Semyon Budyonny, Sergey Kirov, Josef Stalin and others in editing the stories of thousands of citizens submitted as the basis for The History of the Civil War in the USSR. This series was set to run into many editions, though sadly only volumes 1 and 2 ever appeared in English.

A similar project of vast magnitude was started entitled The History of Factories. In one of the early publications, The White Sea Canal, the story is told of the re-education through the labour of many criminals and bandits who were put to work on the construction of the Baltic-White Sea canal. The book documents the transformative effects of collective, productive labour.

The attitudes of the Soviet Union to criminality and imprisonment stand in stark relief to the situation then, and now, prevailing in American, European and British societies and their colonial territories.

The Soviet publishing houses issued translations of the Georgian poets by Soviet writers Boris Pasternak and Nikolay Tikhonov. Ukrainian, White Russian, Armenian, Turkoman, and many other writers of the numerous nationalities of the Soviet Union were published in Russian. (Among them writers of nationalities that before the revolution did not even have their own alphabet). The names of Akop Akopyan, Charents, Leonidze, Paolo Yashvili, Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kuptla, Tychina, Mikitenko, Lakhuti and many others became familiar across the Soviet Union.

Thus, it was said in Soviet times that Goethe’s idea of world literature was being carried into effect, but that at the same time it was not obscured by racial or chauvinistic prejudices. The translation of the poets of the people of the USSR complemented the great work of the Soviet publishing houses (in particular the excellent publications of the Academia) in translating into Russian almost all the treasures of world literature, and many Soviet citizens devoured William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

Central to many of these projects was Maxim Gorky, sometimes as inspirer, sometimes as editor, and sometimes as an advocate, leading Soviet academician Professor Nusinov to comment that Gorky had his entire life pursued three basic lines in all his work:

“As a novelist and playwright giving examples of truthful realistic depiction of reality in the most typical, most profound instances.

“As a publicist struggling against reactionary tendencies in literature, quickly responding to the major developments in social life.

“As the leader of a literary movement, conscious of the tremendous influence of literature and therefore always interested in the processes of literature, primarily in the raising of young talent, educating the new generation of writers.”

In his home in Moscow, Gorky installed the offices of VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) and in the pages of its magazine, which were translated and published monthly in many languages (including English), the cultural achievements of Soviet society were championed all over the world.

Gorky’s death

In 1934, Maxim Gorky’s son, Maxim Peshkov, died. Peshkov worked with his father at the VOKS offices in Moscow, working closely with his father’s secretary, and had helped with preparations for the Soviet writers’ congress.

Two years later, Gorky himself also died. In 1938, the former people’s commissar of internal affairs, Genrikh Yagoda, who had worked as an apprentice in the workshop of Jacob Sverdlov’s father in Nizhny, admitted to their murder.

Also arrested in connection with the crime were Leopold Averbakh, formerly of the RaPP (whose sister was married to Yagoda) and Kryuchkov, who had acted as Gorky’s secretary in the 1930s. Between them, they had spied on the politburo through their links with the Peshkov/Gorky household and had murdered Maxim Gorky and his son.

All but Krychkov were rehabilitated under Khrushchev, and Krychkov himself was rehabilitated under Gorbachev in 1988.

Gorky’s legacy

“The Soviet Union marks the beginning and the progressive advance in the construction of the first socialist state in the world. It is hard to extirpate the habits, prejudices, and superstitions inbred in people by ages, but this work of letting in the light and the air on the survivals of the old, dismal past is going ahead, and we can already say that there is no corner of the Soviet Union where the revolutionary spirit of the new history has not penetrated.” – Maxim Gorky.

A great writer, Maxim Gorky was able to put into words the weighty feelings of love and compassion that he held in his heart for the long-suffering working people of the world. For this he was well loved in his homeland and by the workers all over the world. His books were produced in millions of copies, and streets, squares and parks were named in his honour.

Nizhny-Novgorod was known to an entire generation of Soviet citizens as Gorky. Even today, after the restoration of capitalism in Russia, any visitor is able easily to stumble upon statues and monuments in memory of this great revolutionary writer, whose entire life was bound up with the proletarian revolution and the building of the world’s first socialist state; the glorious Union of Soviet Socialist Republics over which, in the words of Luncharsky, Gorky raised his sword and shield as a revolutionary publicist.

Summing up Gorky’s life and work, Anatol Lunacharsky, the great Bolshevik writer, declared: “Gorky came to literature dressed in peasant boots and a peasant shirt, tuberculous, yet mighty, having drunk deeply of the cup of grief, yet yearning for happiness; he came to the sunny offices of the magazines which were salon editions compared to his native cellar, to tell the full and terrible truth about the ‘moles’ and their blind, filthy, horrible life. This was Gorky’s great mission, this was his great speech of indictment. This determined his biting, sarcastic, merciless realism …

“Gorky knows that people can be mean and foul and these are the people he hates. But he knows that these are ignoramuses, that these are freaks, that these are mere scabs on the beautiful tree of human life.

“Moreover, he knows that there are still very few really great men, pure of heart, courageous and wise, that there are practically no perfectly wonderful people.

“But this does not keep him from loving his fellow man with a feeling that is true love and to have real faith in him, a faith born of knowledge.” (Maxim Gorky by Anatol Lunacharsky, 1932)

This essay was first published in The Communists, an online mouthpiece. of The Communist Party of Great Britain.

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