Socialist Realism, Soviet Art and Stalinism

A Marxist Critique by Laurence Humphries

January 18, 2015


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Socialist Realism was an art movement that emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s . It was greatly influenced by Stalinism , the bureaucratic caste which under the influence of Imperialism had developed a very reactionary and conservative role in the first Workers State. Under extreme adverse conditions the Soviet Union had to fight a series of Civil Wars against Imperialist encirclement and the consequence was that the best cadre of the Bolshevik Party were killed and a layer of petit bourgeois middle class elements were recruited into the Party. Many of them were ex mensheviks and counter revolutionaries but were trusted and given responsibilities by Stalin.

Socialist realism reflected the cultural backwardness of this caste, who believed that Modernist art , particularly abstraction and expressionism were to be destroyed and cast out. The only useful art was figurative art , glorifying Heroic tasks by workers , or showing examples of Stalin and collective farms. To go back to figurative art in this period was reactionary and backward.



The origin of Socialist Realism lay in the early 1920’s when some artists like Mayakovsky , Malevich and others had become involved in the Prolecult movement , which advocated only proletarian art and rejected  the mention of Bourgeois art . Lenin and Trotsky were opposed to this development of Proletarian culture as a dangerous development on the road to dogmatism.

“Marxism has won a historic significance as the ideology of the Revolutionary proletariat because far from reflecting the most valuable achievements of the Bourgeoise epoch it has on the contrary assimiliated  and refashioned everything of value in more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture” [1].

Lenin further went on to say “Achieving unswervingly to this stand of principle the all Russia Proletariat congress rejects in the most resolute manner as theoretically unsound and practically harmful all attempts to invent ones own  particular brand of culture, to remain isolated itself contained organisation to draw a line dividing the field of work of the peoples commissariat for Education and the Prolecult or to set up a Prolecult autonomy “. [2].



Trotsky , Breton and Riveria wrote a statement denouncing Socialist Realist art on the eve of the formation of the Fourth International in 1938. “Towards a free Revolutionary Art 1936″ . ” True art which is not content to play variations on ready made models but rather insists on expressing the inner needs of man and of mankind in its time True art is unable not to be revolutionary not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society. We reject all solidarity with the bureaucracy now in control of the Soviet union , its precisely because in our eyes it represents not Communism but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy. A twilight of filth and blood in which disguised as intellectuals and artists those men stoop to make a career of Lying . the Communist Revolution is not afraid of art it realises that the role of an artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him”.  [3]. Trotsky , Breton and Riveria went on to say “We believe that aesthethic , philosophical and political tendencies of the most varied sort can find here a common ground. Marxists can march hand in hand with anarchists provided both parties uncompromisingly reject the reactionary police , patrol spies represented by Joseph Stalin”.[4].



What Stalinism forgot to recognise was imagination and emotions which could only be expressed through abstraction and expressionist art as practised by Paul Klee, a Revolutionary artist who taught at the Bahaus , both Klee and Kandinsky were experimenting with abstract forms , this could only be expressed through abstraction. To go backwards to a form of Realism was both reactionary and counter productive.

AK Voronsky , a cultural critic suffered for his beliefs under Stalin. He was sent to the Gulag perished and like many members and signatories in the Left Opposition were denounced suffered the Moscow Trials and were executed under Stalinism. This form of control and terror had nothing to do with Socialism or communism.

Voronsky agreeing with Trotsky made these comments “In order to recognise Society on a new Foundation , it must before anything else master the cultural heritage in Science and other Fields”. [5].

“Comrades Lenin and Trotsky state that the main task in the realm of mass cultural Education lies in the assmiliation of bourgeois culture by the masses”. [6].

Voronsky concluded “In short we have no proletarian art in the sense in which bourgeois art exists. The attempt to present contemporary art of the Writer proletarian and writer communist as proletarian art independent and opposed to bourgeois art is both naïve and based upon a misunderstanding”. [7].



George Luckacs was another cultural critic who had an ambivalent attitude to Socialist Realism. Luckacs born in Hungary and active in the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 , had written on Realism and had made major contribution when he had criticised  Expressionism  “It goes without saying that without abstraction there could be no art , for otherwise how could anything in art have representative value, but  like every moment abstraction must have a direction and it is on this everything depends”. [8].

Luckacs had contradictory and ambivalent attitudes to socialist realism  was grappling with the representation of realism and its relationship to Modernism and abstraction.

“And the truth about Socialist realism is that its content and form were seriously distorted during the Stalinist Period” [9].

Defending some aspects of Socialist realism Luckacs says”It would be slanderous to assert that during the Stalinist period Socialist democracy or the Socialist basis of economic construction were totally destroyed” . [9].

Lukacs adopting more critical vein says “But during the Stalinist period as we know many crucial Marxist doctrines were misrepresented”‘ [10].

Labour Review has correctly identified the role of Lukacs in his relationship with Stalinism  “Lukacs Has been in trouble with the Stalinist revisers of Marxism for the better part of his life. He has frequently been accused of Hegelian Idealism and of right wing deviationism. He owes his physical survival to his willingness to pay the price of repeated acts of diplomatic self criticism. He has always bent to the prevailing wind returning to his former path as soon as possible afterwards”.  [11].

It is true to say that as I have argued before Socialist realism’s origin lies with the prolecult movement “To a significant extent AKHRR also set the tone for what was eventually to become Socialist realism”. [12].

As one commentator has suggested “Socialist Realism  disguised as literary criticism represents a bureaucratic and administrative conception of literature , notable both for the exceptional vagueness and fuzziness of its notions and for the implacable rigor of its judgements”. [13].

“During those  dark days of Zhadonvism ( Zhadonov was the Cultural censor who was appointed by Stalin, in 1948 Shostakovich together with Prokoview and others were denounced for producing Music that was not pleasing to the Ear, I have commented on Shostakovich and his fight against Stalinism elsewhere on my blog) one of the very few Marxists to speak out against this propagandistic literature trapped in the stifling cage of an official political doctrines is Georg Luckacs “.[14].

“Moreover by the very fact that the cultural bureaucracy created by Stalinism and still faithful to its spirit remains unchallenged. The constraint excercised on writers ,artists and muscians is twofold. Firstly an enormous bureaucratic mechanism made up of study committees and investigatory Committees”.

I have tried in this assessment to show that Socialist realism , influenced by Stalin himself represented all that was backward and reactionary in Russian Society , appealing to the common denominator. Many artists like Voronsky ended up in the Gulag to suffer the fate of the Moscow Trials and eventually Death by Execution. what was their crime to compose music or paint or write a play that Stalin did not like, an extreme state of paranoia developed by a caste which had more in common with Medieval practices than twentieth century life. Not even under capitalist society did these strictures take place , the only other comparison would be Nazi Germany which also developed a Socialist realist culture.



1) Art in theory pg 402

2)  Art in Theory  pg. 402

3)  Art in Theory pg. 532

4)  Art in Theory  pg. 532

5) Art as the cognition of Life by AK Voronsky  pg.148

6) Art as the cognition of Life  by AK Voronsky pg.153

7)  Art as the Cognition of Life  By AK Voronsky pg.160

8)  Aesthethics and politics  By Georg Luckacs  pg.38.

9)  Meaning of contemporary realism  Georg Luckacs pg. 133

10) Meaning of contemporary realism Georg Luckacs  pg.125

11) Labour review Volume no7 No 2 Summer 1962 pg.57

12) Realism Rationalism Surrealism art between the wars  Open University pg.275

13) Marxists Aesthethics  Henri Avron pg.83

14) Marxist Aesthethics    Henri Avron pg.84