X. A Critique and Counterproposal to Socialist Realism

1. Socialist Realism

Among the various Communist revolutionary activities, one which played an important role was artistic activity, whose style of creation was called “socialist realism.” What, then, was socialist realism? Lenin said that art should stand on the side of the proletariat, as follows:

Art belongs to the people. The deepest wellspring of art must be found among the wide-ranging class of laborers…. Art should be based on their feelings, thoughts, and demands, and should grow along with them.

[Literature] must become party literature…. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, “a cog and a screw” of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically-conscious vanguard of the entire working class.

Also, the founder of socialist realism in literature, Maxim Gorky (1868 -1936), stated the following about socialist realism:

For us writers, it is necessary in our life and in our creative work to stand on the high viewpoint―and only on that viewpoint that can see clearly all of the filthy crimes of capitalism, all of its mean and bloody intentions, and all of the greatness of the heroic activities of the proletariat.

In the contemporary age, writers assume the mission to play two roles at the same time, that of a midwife [to socialism] and a grave digger [to capitalism].

The main goal of socialist realism lies in inspiring a socialistic, revolutionary world view, or world sense.

To state these sentiments in another way, writing poetry and novels, painting, and so forth, should all be carried out for the sole purpose of exposing the crimes of capitalism and praising socialism, and works should be created to inspire readers and viewers to stand up for revolution, with a righteously burning mind.

Socialist realism was formulated by Soviet artists under the guidance of Stalin in 1932, and came to be applied to all artistic fields, including literature, drama, cinema, painting, sculpture, music, and architecture. It advocated the following:

(1) To describe reality accurately with historic concreteness in its revolutionary development.

(2) To match one’s artistic expression with the themes of ideological reform and the education of the workers in the socialist spirit.

What is the theoretical ground that gave rise to such socialist realism? This ground can be found in the Marxist theory of “basis and superstructure.” Marx stated in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as follows:

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness [including art].

Stalin further elaborated the theory of “basis and superstructure” as follows:

Having come into being, it [the superstructure] becomes an exceedingly active force, actively assisting its base to take shape and consolidate itself…. The superstructure is created by the base precisely in order to serve it, to actively help it to take shape and consolidate itself.

The superstructure is the product of one epoch, the epoch in which the given economic base exists and operates. The superstructure is therefore short-lived; it is eliminated and disappears with the elimination and disappearance of the given base.

To synthesize and summarize, the above quotes are saying that “Communist art must actively cooperate in eliminating the capitalist system and its superstructure, whereas in Communist society [socialist society], it must actively serve to maintain and strengthen its economic system, while educating the working people.” Based upon this theory, socialist realism was established.

2. Critiques of Socialist Realism

As indicated by Lenin’s words, “Literature must belong to the Party”; by Stalin’s words, “Writers are the engineers of the human spirit”; and by Gorky’s words, “Writers are the midwife to socialism, and the gravedigger to capitalism,” artists and writers were required to obey the Party’s directives absolutely, and their individuality and freedom were totally disregarded. As a result, since the beginning of the Revolution, artists and writers lived under surveillance and oppression in the Soviet Union until its collapse. Especially in the late 1930s, when Stalin promoted socialist realism, a great number of artists and writers were arrested and purged as heretics. Even after Stalin’s death, socialist realism continued to reign as the accepted theory of art, and consequently many artists and writers became dissidents.

Criticizing socialist realism, art critic Herbert Read said, “Socialist realism is nothing but an attempt to stuff intellectual or dogmatic objectives into art.” Ilya G. Ehrenburg (1891-1967), a Soviet journalist and novelist who was awarded the Stalin Prize for two of his novels, but later became critical of Stalin, said, “What is described in a book depicting weaving women in a spinning mill is not a human being but a machine, and not human feelings but merely the process of production.” Thus, he criticized the image of the human being depicted in socialist realism. The Korean art critic Yohan Cho also criticized the image of the human being in socialist realism, as follows:

The farmers and workers whom they [the Soviet writers] described were wonderful heroes and heroines who did not show even the faintest sign of uneasiness. It was all the more so since a theory of no conflict was spread. That is, they do not seem to have any kind of anxiety whatsoever. They were the ones who had no life of their own…. Therefore, that writing could never express a person’s internal world.

In April 1986, an accident occurred at the nuclear power plant of Chornobyl in the Ukraine Republic of the U.S.S.R. Concerning the accident, Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed that the Soviet bureaucracy was responsible for the disaster, and said, “This is a tragedy. The nuclear accident was a great disaster, but it is even more regrettable to confirm that bureaucracy is deeply rooted in our society.” Then, at the end of June, 1986, he attended a meeting of the Writers’ Union and appealed to the writers, saying, “At the time of the Revolution, Gorky exposed and condemned the corruption and crimes of public officials. In the same way, Soviet public officials today have lapsed into bureaucratism, and there is a lot of vice. So, you writers should not hesitate to criticize them through your works.” Then, a group of writers allegedly requested the Soviet government to stop its censorship of literary works. They did so because to date Soviet artists and writers have been deprived of freedom, in the name of socialist realism.

In Communist China, Mao Ze-dong granted freedom to intellectuals for a while, with his policy of “letting a hundred schools of thought contend,” prior to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. When that happened, most intellectuals criticized the socialist policies. Later, they were severely persecuted. When Deng Xiaoping grasped the political power and adopted pragmatic policies, he began to grant freedom to intellectuals bit by bit. As a result, a renowned theorist of Communist China, Wang Ruo, revealed that in socialism there is human alienation just as there is in capitalism.

When we consider these facts, we realize that socialist realism, as art for the proletarian revolution and as art that is subservient to party policy, has proved itself to be totally false art.

3. An Indictment of Communism by Notable Writers

Communist leaders compelled artists and writers to praise Communism from the viewpoint of socialist realism. Even under the Communist regime, however, the artists and writers who pursued true art, at home and abroad, indicted Communism for its falsehood.
André Gide (1869-1951), a French writer who had been fascinated by Communism, attended Gorky’s funeral in 1936, and afterwards traveled in the Soviet Union for a month. He candidly expressed, in his book Back From the U.S.S.R., his disappointment with the Soviet society he saw on that occasion. He said in the introduction,

Three years ago I declared my admiration, my love, for the U.S.S.R. An unprecedented experiment was being attempted there, which filled our hearts with hope and from which we expected an immense advance, an impetus capable of carrying forward in its stride the whole human race…. In our hearts and in our minds we resolutely linked the future of culture itself with the glorious destiny of the U.S.S.R.

However, after coming in contact with the Soviet people during his one-month trip, he wrote the following impressions:

In the U.S.S.R. everybody knows beforehand, once and for all, that on any and every subject there can be only one opinion…. So that every time you talk to one Russian you feel as if you were talking to them all.

Finally, he fiercely denounced the Soviet Union as follows:

What is desired and demanded is approval of all that is done in the U.S.S.R.,…. And I doubt whether in any other country in the world, even Hitler’s Germany, thought be less free, more bowed down, more fearful (terrorized), more visualized.

The Soviet writer Boris L. Pasternak (1829-1960) secretly wrote Doctor Zhivago, in which he expressed his disappointment with the Russian Revolution, and advocated the philosophy of love. That book was published, not in the Soviet Union but in foreign countries, and was received favorably. It was decided to award Pasternak the Nobel Prize but, as a result, at home he was expelled from the Writer’s Union and denounced as a reactionary anti-Socialist writer. Pasternak stated in that book, through Zhivago, who represented his own conscience, the following:

Marxism a science?… Marxism is too uncertain of its ground to be a science. Sciences are more balanced, more objective. I do not know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism.

He also denounced the attitude taken by the revolutionaries toward intellectuals, saying,

At first everything was splendid. “Come along. We welcome good, honest work, we welcome ideas, especially new ideas. What could please us better? Do your work, struggle, and carry on.” Then, you find in practice that what they meant by ideas is nothing but words―claptrap in praise of the revolution and the regime.

4. Errors in the Communist Theory of Art Seen from the Perspective of Unification Thought

What are the causes of the errors of socialist realism?

First, socialist realism does not regard art as the “activity of creating beauty and joy for the whole (creation) as well as for oneself (appreciation) while respecting the individuality of the artist,” but as a means of educating the people, while conforming to Party policy. Artists should manifest their individuality in their work to the utmost degree. By so doing, they please God and other people. Socialist realism, however, has deprived artists of their individual expression and has standardized all works of art. Therefore, there is no way for true art to be born out of it.

Second, socialist realism denies God; therefore, it has lost the fundamental standard of artistic activity. It establishes, instead, arbitrary standards based on Party policy, forcing artists and writers to conform to them.

Third, since beauty and love are as closely related as two sides of a coin, art and ethics must also be in an inseparable relationship. Yet, since Communism ignores this fact and denies the ethics of love, it has transformed art into art without love, or art as a tool of the Communist Party to rule the people.

Fourth, art is not a part of the superstructure. Nevertheless, socialist realism regards art as such and reduces it to the status of a servant of the economic system (the “base”). In reality, however, art is not determined by the economic system. Marx himself made the following confession in the latter part of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

The difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal.

According to the materialist conception of history, Greek culture (part of the superstructure) should have disappeared by the time of Marx without leaving a trace, and contemporary people should have felt no interest in it. But Marx felt difficulty in the fact that Greek art and epic poetry, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, not only gave contemporary people joy, but had even become the models of art. This is nothing but Marx’s own testimony to the error of his theory of “basis and superstructure.”

Human beings have the fundamental desire to pursue the values of truth, goodness, and beauty. Even though fallen, all people possess it at all times and in all places. Therefore, if the values of truth, goodness, and beauty are expressed in a work of art, that work moves everyone’s heart. The fact that Greek art has continued to be enjoyed by people even until today means that it contains eternal values of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Finally, let us consider the writers Gorky and Tolstoy, both of whom, though totally different in style, in the same way and in almost the same period, condemned the corruption of Russian society prior to the Revolution.

Gorky conformed with Communism, which sought to violently overthrow capitalism, and asserted that the mission of the artist lay in inspiring revolutions. Thus, he wrote works that glorified the revolutionary movement. Mother, by Gorky, has been regarded as a literary masterpiece of socialist realism. It depicts the image of a mother who, although she is an uneducated working woman, is strongly motivated by a desire to protect her only son, a son thrown into prison on charges of revolutionary activities, and becomes gradually awakened to the class nature of society. Finally, she herself becomes an active participant in the revolutionary movement.

On the other hand, while condemning social evils, Tolstoy advocated that the way to resolve them lay in the recovery of true human nature through love. One of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is Resurrection. An aristocratic young man, appearing in court as a member of a jury, comes to learn that a young woman whom he seduced by mistake in his younger days has become degraded, and is being judged. He becomes conscience-stricken, repents, and decides to save her. Finally, she is rehabilitated, and the young man also starts a new life.

The way Gorky chose was the external way of social revolution, whereas that of Tolstoy was the internal way of spiritual revolution. Which was the correct way? The way of violent revolution, chosen by Gorky, was the wrong way, as the realities of the socialist countries following revolution―the oppression of human nature and the corruption of bureaucrats―indicates. On the other hand, the way Tolstoy chose was the true way, in that it was the way to recover human nature. It must be pointed out, however, that it still had its limits in saving society as a whole.

Unification Thought pursues the way for both humankind and society to be reformed into what they were originally intended to be. This becomes possible by understanding God correctly. In other words, by knowing correctly the attributes of God, who created humankind and the world, we can learn the ideal state of humankind and society as they were originally intended to be. All that must be done then is to begin to reform humankind and society in that direction. The new art advocated by Unification Thought is Unificationism, in which idealism and realism are unified, centering on God’s Heart (love). Unificationism seeks to reform reality toward the original ideal of humankind and society.