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

M A Jones mark at SPAMjones118.freeserve.co.uk
Tue Aug 10 14:06:19 MDT 1999

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

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