Of Susan, Jackson, Lou, Mark and Roy or On Interpretation, Abstract Expressionism, Socialist Realism and the Bhaskarian dialectic

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Tue Aug 10 23:28:01 MDT 1999

At 21:06 10/08/99 +0100, you wrote:
>Thanks for this, Gary.
>When I started sounding off about Pollock I had the uneasy feeling that I
>was doing Lou a disservice by not engaging with his, as you rightly say,
>great stuff on Pollock and Expressionism. This is my chance to say sorry,
>and also to express my regret, which I still feel, that when Lou was here in
>London I wouldn't allow him to give me a guided tour of the Pollock
>exhibition then on at the Tate, and instead I hubristically insisted on
>dragging him round the Turners, which he was gracious enough to be
>appreciative of, but still, I was the real loser.
>And it shows, doesn't it? You are quite right about Pollock: he *is* an
>artist. You are also quite right to remind us of the differences between the
>moral ambience of Lenin's time, and Stalin's, which was indeed the
>difference between Lunacharsky and Zhdanov.
>Of course, you are also being a wee bit tricky by comparing dreadful stuff
>like 'Morning in the Homeland' (Stalin, Kolkhozy, combines mowing the fields
>etc) with Pollock. What about Kustodiev, for instance? There is plenty of
>Socialist-Realism that also is real art and has its epiphanic qualities, the
>kind of thing which as you say drives Susan Sontag into the woods in
> floaty dresses. Anyway, like all real art, S-R too can
>have its 'pulse of freedom' and it is wrong to deny that possibility just
>because Zhdanov was in charge.
>Were you impressed by Erich Auerbach's book 'Mimesis' BTW, was it any kind
>of reference point for you?
>>>Mark it seems to me strives to read Socialist Realist paintings not as
>transfigurations but in a Blochian sense as proofs of the
>'forward-dawning', as prefigurations of how things will be. However with
>their combination of realist/mimetic form and fantastic content they
>actually constituted as Raymond Williams put it 'the worse kind of
>Look, I'm not 'doggedly defending Stalin' but re-examining that era and
>frankly I haven't noticed too many substantial refutations of many of my
>arguments: yours here is one of the few, and we are obliged to you for that.
>Unfortunately you spoil things a bit when you bang on about Stalin's
>personality cult *versus Lenin's absence of one*, an observation which is
>(a) not entirely the truth: the deification of Lenin began in his lifetime;
>and (b) springs from the usual old Cold War demonising mythologies about
>Stalin's 'paranoia', 'megalomania' etc. The Stalin cult was part of a
>process of social engineering whose real motivation was state-building and
>revolutionary consolidation in conditions of internal stress, developmental
>turbulence and profound external threat. The massive migration of peasants
>into the cities, urbanisation and proletarianisation, loss of
>cultural/ethnological support systems, loss of religion, the village etc,
>were massive psychic events in the lives of this large, uprooted, turbulent
>population of new proletarians. If you can't see what the purposes of the
>Stalin cult were, then it's because you actually don't agree with the drive
>to industrialisation at all; you hanker for a different outcome to NEP than
>Stalin's Great Turn.
>The simple fact is that Stalin's policy  was very largely conditioned by the
>experience of the First World War. It was not so much that Russia
>defeated at the Front, as that Russian society collapsed,
>and famine spread to the cities, producing in turn military collapse
>and the implosion of the autocracy. Now, ask yourself this: was
>Stalin's 'conservatism' well founded or not? What he wanted to avoid
>was a similar collapse in a future war. Large peasant societies always
>collapsed in the face of western industrialised armies: that was the
>whole experience of 19th century colonialism and in particular, of Russia
>between 1914-1916. The peasants, faced with massive inflation (caused
>by arms production and economic diversion of resources) and the loss of
>goods from the cities, begin to hoard food and town-country trade collapses.
>Urban famine destroys the state in short order. It happened everywhere
>and every time Western imperialism came into contact with so-called
>'advanced organic' ie, preindustrial agrarian (usually absolutist) states.
>This is a principal reason why such agrarian pre-industrial socieities can
>never withstand mechanised imperialism. Hitler and the Nazis assumed that
>the same thing would happen again; they assumed they did not need to provide
>winter clothing for their troops because Russia would fall apart in 6 weeks,
>and Stalin would never have time to mobilise his huge manpower reserves.
>Stalin, who by 1941 was fairly confident that Soviet industrialisation was
>an accomplished fact, never reckoned with Hitler's inability to see what had
>actually happened in the Soviet Thirties: ironically, this led to Stalin
>refusing to take seriously warnings that Barbarossa would happen on 22 June
>1941. When Sorge told him the date, Stalin's characteristic response was to
>double check, by, among other things, having the wool futures prices
>investigated (!) and checking on Germany's sheepskin import figures: when he
>discovered that Germany had not been importing the essentials to provide the
>Wehrmacht with winter clothing, he (so oriented to economics, to material
>planning and supply!) was utterly satisfied that Hitler was not
>contemplating an attack on Russia *BECAUSE STALIN KNEW
>Unfortunately, he was wrong; he over-estimated Hitler, fatally so.
>Such as the 'errors of judgment' and mutual misperceptions which can drive
>large historical processes. Now, Stalin's 'conservatism' on cultural
>matters was precisely a function of his drive to stabilise Soviet Russia as
>a 'normal' urban industrial society which would have the depth of human and
>technological resources necessary to survive and win a future war. The
>question of what would be 'future-war' was what obsessed the Soviet
>General Staff thgroughout the Thirties and *A PRIME REASON FOR STALIN'S
>DISAGREEMENT WITH TUKHACHEVSKY*  was over this issue: Tukhachevsky
>understood the need for 'defence in depth' to deal with the blitzkrieg
>wars-of-manoeuvre, which was what 'future-war' would entail. But
>was not prepared to take on board the kind of overall social processes that
>such an echeloned defence strategy required. He did not believe (as Bukharin
>did not believe) in either the possibility or the necessity for
>collectivisation and industrialisation: this twin process seemed to them to
>be simply catastrophes which foredoomed any plan for national survival in
>the face of Hitler Germany. But they WERE wrong. This all strongly impacted
>Tukhachevsky's conception of the role of the General Staff and his feeling
>that the Army should be prioritised, not only in terms of receiving scarce
>resources, but also politically: that the Army was the single most important
>state institution. Stalin did win control of the RKKA thru the purges.
>Hitler did not get control of *his* generals until after the Wehrmacht was
>defeated in the Battle for Moscow, an event which foretold the doom of the
>Third Reich. In particular, Hitler's inability to control Guderian on the
>battlefield, led to disaster.
>In the late thirties, Stalin wanted his artists to portray military themes,
>especially famous battles of old. This, like the personality cult, was
>simple, crude but highly effective preparation for war. I do not believe
>that the avant-garde was capable of serving his turn, do you?
>On the question of transfiguring/prefiguring, it's a clever, well-put point
>which I shall adopt and use myself, if you don't mind! But I still maintain
>that far from being 'the worst kind of cover-up', the prefigurative
>potential of some socialist-realist painting was quite subversive of any
>such intent.
>Again, you and Raymond Williams reveal your native Cold War spirit when you
>deploy such formulations. What was there to cover up, actually? Stalin was
>preparing the country for inevitable war and everything was subordinated to
>that. That is the entire meaning of the Soviet Thirties: the long-range
>defence of the October Revolution. Even so, it was a close run thing. So
>Stalin was right, wasn't he?
>I have no time to spell-correct this right now, sorry.
>Mark Jones

I will download this and take it away to reread and rethink.  Gawd such a
painful process! Thank you.



ps Tkanks to Yoshi for her equally thoughtful and enlightening reply.

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