Socialist realism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Socialist realism

Socialist realism: A mode of representation characterized by a Marxist emphasis on class struggle as the catalyst for historical change and employing the techniques of nineteenth-century Russian realism. The term was likely coined in 1932, the year the Literary Gazette, the official publication of the Union of Soviet Writers, published an article asserting that “the masses demand of an artist honesty, truthfulness, and a revolutionary socialist realism in the representation of this proletarian revolution.” It was used with reference to all of the arts, from literature and film to painting, sculpture, architecture, and music.

Socialist realism became the official literary form of the former Soviet Union in the 1930s, adopted by the Communist regime’s Party Central Committee in 1932 and the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, the latter of which defined it as “the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” and further asserted that such representation “must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” All works were to be consistent with Marxist-Leninist ideology, class-conscious, Party-minded, and accessible to and reflective of the people’s interests and values; they were to glorify communism and present a didactic, optimistic view of the proletarian struggle against bourgeois capitalism and toward social consciousness. Writers and artists were viewed as agents of the state whose principal role was to reinforce and advance doctrinally “correct” thinking. Key figures in the adoption and promulgation of the form included the USSR’s dictatorial leader Joseph Stalin, who in 1932 called writers “the engineers of human souls”; Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who authored an essay “On Socialist Realism” (1933); and Soviet politician Andrei Zhdanov, who formulated “Zhdanovism,” an anti-Western cultural policy of strict, ideologically based control of the arts.

Socialist realism persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though strictures were somewhat relaxed following Stalin’s death in 1953 and under the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. It had minimal impact in the Western world, where it was roundly criticized for state censorship and propagandistic aims, but became an important form in Eastern European countries under Soviet domination during the twentieth century.

EXAMPLES: Socialist realist novels include Gorky’s Mother (1906), Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925), Alexander Fadeyev’s The Rout (1927), and Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1936). Examples of socialist realist art include Karp Trokhimenko’s “Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution,” painted in the 1940s, and Boris Eremeevich Vladimirski’s painting “Roses for Stalin” (1949).