socialist realism

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socialist realism

socialist realism, Soviet artistic and literary doctrine. The role of literature and art in Soviet society was redefined in 1932 when the newly created Union of Soviet Writers proclaimed socialist realism as compulsory literary practice. As conceived by Stalin, Zhdanov, and Gorky, socialist realism prescribed a generally optimistic picture of socialist reality and of the development of the Communist revolution. Its purpose was education in the spirit of socialism. Its practice is marked by strict adherence to party doctrine and to conventional techniques of realism. Socialist realism has been widely condemned as stifling to artistic values. After the death of Stalin in 1953 some relaxation of strictures was evident, although socialist realism continued as the official doctrine. A similar approach to the creation of art and literature was also enforced for a time in the People's Republic of China.


See studies by A. Tertz (tr. 1961) and C. V. James (1973); M. Slonim, Soviet Russian Literature (rev. ed. 1967).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Socialist Realism


the method of literature and art that expresses in aesthetic terms a consciously socialist concept of man and the world. Socialist realism arose in the era of struggle for the establishment and building of a socialist society. Both the content and the artistic and structural principles of socialist realist art serve to depict life in the light of socialist ideals. The rise and development of socialist realism are linked with the expansion of socialist ideas in various countries and with the growth of the revolutionary working-class movement.

The initial tendencies toward a literature and art of a new type date from the mid-19th century. They include revolutionary proletarian literature in Great Britain (the poetry of the Chartist movement and the literary work of E. C. Jones), Germany (the poetry of G. Herwegh, F. Freiligrath, and G. Weerth), and France (the literature of the Paris Commune and E. Pottier’s “Internationale”). In the late 19th and the early 20th century, proletarian literature developed intensively in Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and other countries.

Socialist realism emerged as a literary method in the early 20th century in Russia, particularly in the works of M. Gorky. To a greater or lesser extent, it was also apparent in the works of such writers as M. M. Kotsiubinskii, J. Rainis, A. Akopian, and I. I. Evdoshvili. The emergence of socialist realism reflected the historical importance of the revolutionary movement in Russia, which became the center of the world revolutionary struggle in the early 20th century. Following Gorky, writers in several countries combined the realistic depiction of life with the expression of a socialist world view; they included H. Barbusse, M. Andersen Nexö, and J. Reed.

After the October Revolution of 1917, socialist trends in literature were established in the 1920’s in Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia, and the method of socialist realism emerged as a natural development in world literature. The growth of the antifascist movement in the 1930’s helped expand the international front of revolutionary literature and art. Soviet literature played a unifying role in this process, since by that time it had become firmly based ideologically and had produced outstanding works. Socialist realism became a broad international trend in literature and art.

After World War II (1939-45) and particularly after the emergence of the world socialist system, socialist realism became still further consolidated as the vanguard of artistic progress. Its artistic experience was broadened and enriched in literature by Gorky, V. V. Mayakovsky, and M. A. Sholokhov, in the theater by K. S. Stanislavsky and V. E. Meyerhold, in the innovative cinematography of S. M. Eisenstein, V. I. Pudovkin, and A. P. Dovzhenko, in music by S. S. Prokofiev and D. D. Shostakovich, in painting by B. V. Ioganson, A. A. Deineka, B. I. Prorokov, P. D. Korin, and R. Guttuso, in sculpture by S. T. Konenkov and V. I. Mukhina, and in drama by B. Brecht and V. V. Vishnevskii.

The term “socialist realism” first appeared in the Soviet press in 1932 (Literaturnaia gazeta, May 23). The creation of the term arose out of the necessity of opposing the approach of RAPP (the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which mechanically transferred philosophical concepts to the literary sphere (“the dialectical-materialist creative method”). This had to be countered by an approach that would correspond to the principal trend of Soviet literary development. It was essential to recognize the role of the classical traditions and to understand the new features of (socialist) realism that were conditioned by the new elements in life and by the socialist concept of the world held by Soviet writers. At this time, the writers Gorky, Mayakovsky, A. N. Tolstoy, and A. A. Fadeev and the critics A. V. Lunacharskii and A. K. Voronskii sought to define the artistic distinctiveness of Soviet literature. They spoke of proletarian, tendentious, majestic, heroic, romantic, and social realism and the combination of realism and romanticism.

The term “socialist realism” immediately came into wide use and was confirmed by the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers (1934), at which Gorky said that the new method was a creative program that aimed to realize revolutionary humanism: “Socialist realism affirms being as action, as creation, whose aim is the uninterrupted development of each person’s most valuable qualities so as to attain victory over the forces of nature, man’s health and long life, and the great happiness of living on the earth” (Pervyi Vsesoiuznyi s”ezd sovetskikh pisatelei: Stenografich. otchet, 1934, p. 17).

Continuing the humanist traditions of previous art and combining them with a new socialist content, socialist realism is a new type of artistic consciousness. Its innovativeness is linked with Marxism’s contribution to materialist philosophy—the affirmation of the role of activity that transforms the world in a revolutionary way (Marx’ “Theses on Feuerbach”). This concept was the source for the idea of depicting reality in its revolutionary development.

Socialist realism is based on a concept of revolutionary and active socialist humanism. Socialist humanism fosters the harmonious development of the individual, the full realization of each individual’s moral and spiritual potentialities, and a truly humane attitude among people toward one another and toward nature and society. This tendency is characteristic of socialist literature, art, architecture, music, and theater and is the most outstanding, universal, and distinguishing feature of socialist realist art.

Certain statements by authors of Marxist-Leninist classics are of great importance for an understanding of the principles of socialist art. Engels believed that the art of the future would be “a total blending of great profundity of thought and conscious historical content . . . with Shakespearean vivacity and abundance of action” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 29, p. 492). Engels’ idea of the conscious historicism of artistic thought attained further development in the principle of partiinost’ (party spirit) in literature and art formulated by Lenin.

It was Lenin who specifically pointed out the fundamental features of the new literature. He noted that it was conditioned by the objective realities of life and by a comprehension of life’s contradictions and course of development during severe conflicts. Finally, Lenin emphasized the partiinost’ inherent in the new literature’s evaluation of periods of conflict—the fact that the artist consciously and openly sides with the progressive tendencies of historical development. True creative freedom does not consist in individual whim but in conscious individual action corresponding to the requirements of actual historical development. The more profound, comprehensive, and objective one’s understanding of the world, the broader and more significant are one’s subjective potentialities and the boundaries of one’s creative freedom. This is what Leninist principles of partiinost’ demand in art—the unity of profound objective cognition and intense subjective activism. When an individual’s subjective aspirations coincide with the objective course of history, the individual acquires a perspective and confidence. This forms the basis for man’s revolutionary activity and for the comprehensive development of individual talents and, in particular, the emergence and flourishing of artistically creative personalities. Socialist art thus has remarkably broad aesthetic potentialities. Socialist realism expresses the historical perspective of the development of progressive art, which bases itself on the entire preceding experience of world literature and art.

The innovativeness of socialist realism was apparent even during its earliest stages. With Gorky’s The Mother and Enemies, Andersen Nexo’s novels Pelle the Conqueror and Ditte, Daughter of Man, and the proletarian poetry of the late 19th century, literature began to reflect the struggle between the old and the new and the formation of the new man, the fighter for and builder of the new society. In conformity with the new aesthetic ideal of historical optimism, the clashes of contemporary life were depicted from the viewpoint of revolutionary social development.

Gorky sought to inspire man with confidence in his powers and his future; he poeticized labor and revolutionary activity. From the beginning, the main theme of Soviet literature was the “worldwide conflagration” of revolution. However, the theme of the prerevolutionary world remained important, although this theme was not treated as a mere continuation of the tradition of critical realism. The past was perceived in a new aesthetic light, and the inspired nature of its portrayal was governed by the fact that there could be no return to the past. The innovative historicism of socialist realist literature differed from the historicism of critical realism, as seen in Gorky’s The Artamonov Business and The Life ofKlim Samgin. New satirical genres were developed by Mayakovsky and J. Hasek. Socialist realism did not simply copy the classical genres but enriched them, particularly in the case of the novel. The earliest major works of Soviet prose depicted the revolution on a scale comparable to that of the folk epic, as seen in D. Furmanov’s Chapaev, A. S. Serafimovich’s The Iron Flood, and Fadeev’s The Nineteen. The “people’s fate” was presented in a different way than in the epic novels of the 19th century.

The novels of the 1920’s and 1930’s portrayed the elemental force of the people in the revolution and the guidance of this force by the “iron will” of the Bolsheviks. These novels also depicted the formation of the socialist collective. Portrayals of the masses were combined with depictions of highly individual and integral characters who also represented the masses, for example, in Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, A. N. Tolstoy’s Road to Calvary, and the novels of F. Gladkov, L. Leonov, K. Fedin, and A. Malyshkin. The epic quality of the socialist realist novel was also evident in the works of foreign writers, for example, L. Aragon (France), A. Seghers (German Democratic Republic [GDR]), M. Pujmanova (Czechoslovakia), and J. Amado (Brazil).

The literature and art of socialist realism created a new image of the positive hero—fighter, builder, and leader. The historical optimism of socialist realism is more fully revealed through such heroes, who affirm their faith in the victory of communist ideas in spite of occasional defeats and losses. Many works conveying the drama of the revolutionary struggle may be termed “optimistic tragedies,” for example, Fadeev’s The Nineteen, the plays of V. Vishnevskii and F. Wolf (GDR), and Reportage by a Man With a Noose Around His Neck by J. Fucik (Czechoslovakia).

Works depicting revolutionary heroism and the people who embody it and lead the masses are typical of socialist realism. The first classical model of a proletarian leader was Pavel Vlasov, the hero of Gorky’s novel The Mother. Later models were Levinson in Fadeev’s The Nineteen, Korchagin in N. A. Ostrovskii’s How the Steel Was Tempered, and Davydov in Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned. Communist leaders are also encountered in the books of Amado, Pujmanova, W. Bredel (GDR), and G. Karaslavov (Bulgaria). The positive heroes of socialist realism vary in character, temperament, activities, and outlook. This variety is an essential feature of socialist realism.

Since the first years of the October Revolution, the image of Lenin has passed into the poetry of many peoples. It is a realistic image and also a symbol of revolution that incorporates all the romance of an age. The establishment of socialist realism was closely linked to the ardent affirmation of the new life and to the lofty literary depictions of revolutionary heroism during the Civil War, the period of socialist construction, and the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). These features were also manifested in the poetry of the antifascist resistance in France, Poland, and Yugoslavia and in works depicting the people’s struggle, for example, J. Aldridge’s The Sea Eagle. Works of socialist realists have “the ability to look at the present from the future” (A. M. Gorky, in V. I. Lenin and A. M. Gorky, Pis’ma, Vospominaniia, Dokumenty, 3rd ed., 1969, p. 378). This ability is the product of the historically unique development of a socialist society, in which glimpses of the future are apparent in present-day life.

Socialist realism is an international and unified literary movement in the era of the socialist transformation of the world. This is evident in the multiplicity of national forms and techniques through which socialist realism has developed. In Amado’s opinion, which is shared by many writers, “in order for our books—novels and poetry—to serve the cause of revolution, they must first and foremost be Brazilian; this determines their capacity to be international” (Vtoroi Vsesoiuznyi s”ezd sovetskikh pisatelei: Stenografich. otchet, 1956, p. 88). The achievements of Soviet literature and art are of prime importance for world artistic development in this respect.

In the USSR, socialist realism is the unifying principle of Soviet literature as a whole, despite the variety of national literatures with their own historical traditions and other individual traits. The development of socialist realism and the stages through which it has passed have varied depending on the national and historical conditions that have fostered the method. Socialist realism has continued to acquire new forms and stylistic expressions. It is born anew again and again while preserving its unity and basic principles. The writers E. Mezhelaitis, A. Tvardovskii, Ch. Aitmatov, M. Stel’makh, R. Gamzatov, and Iu. Smuul differ in style, but their works are ideologically similar.

During the establishment of socialist realism, some writers whose works had been influenced by other methods and trends made a transition to the new method. In Soviet literature of the 1920’s, a number of writers who had become established before the revolution only gradually absorbed the new literary trends and the new socialist humanism, sometimes with sharp conflicts, as in the case of A. N. Tolstoy.

Writers who helped develop socialist realist poetry in the West had been linked with left avant-garde trends of the 1910’s and 1920’s; they included L. Aragon, P. Eluard, J. Becher, N. Hikmet, V. Nezval, P. Neruda, and A. Jozsef.

Some 20th-century representatives of critical realism, including K. Capek, R. Rolland, R. Martin du Gard, and H. Mann, were influenced by socialist realism as well. Profound changes took place in the creative writing of the masters of critical realism in countries where the people’s democratic system was victorious, for example, in the works of M. Sadoveanu and A. Zweig.

A number of prominent Marxist aestheticians helped develop the theory of the new art in the late 19th and the early 20th century, for example, G. Plekhanov, V. Vorovskii, M. Ol’minskii, F. Mehring, D. Blagoev, and J. Marchlewski. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, a similar contribution was made by Lunacharskii, whose works won a wide international reputation. Prominent theorists of socialist art outside the USSR have included R. Fox, G. Bakalov, T. Pavlov, I. Fik, B. Vaclavek, K. Konrad, E. Urx, and D. Jovanovic. The aesthetic views of such founders of the new art as Gorky, Becher, Brecht, J. Wolker, and Fadeev are of great importance as well.

Socialist realism must be understood historically as an evolving but inwardly unified creative process. The aesthetics of socialist realism now encompass the entire multinational experience of art in the socialist countries, of revolutionary art in the bourgeois West, and of the cultures of the Third World, which have developed under complex and conflicting influences. Socialist realism is continually expanding its boundaries and is becoming the foremost literary method of the modern age. This expansion, owing to the principles governing it, stands in contrast to R. Garaudy’s theory of “unbounded realism.” Garaudy’s theory seeks to eliminate the ideological foundations of the new art and to obliterate the boundaries between realism and modernism.

Because of the expansion of socialist realism, it is impossible to make dogmatic definitions of its creative techniques. Marxist aesthetic theory, basing itself on the international experience of socialist art, has concluded that the potentialities of socialist realism are extremely broad. Socialist realism is viewed as a new type of artistic consciousness that is not confined to one or several ways of depicting life. Instead, it is an open system of artistic forms for portraying life truthfully. Socialist realism incorporates the foremost trends in worldwide artistic process and finds new ways to express them. Therefore, the concept of socialist realism is inseparably linked with that of artistic progress. This progress reflects the advance of society toward ever broader and more complete forms of spiritual life.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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