Socialist Worker

Does art have to be politically committed?

In the last column in our series Sinead Kennedy explains why Marxism rejects "socialist realism"

Issue No. 2011

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter


Nobel laureate and political activist Harold Pinter has always defended the self?sufficiency of art, claiming that “what I write has no obligation other than to itself”.

Pinter has produced some of the most important contemporary examples of political writing. Yet his statement touches on one of the fundamental tensions between art and politics - should there be a distinction between ideology and aesthetics?

There is common misconception that a Marxist writer is obliged to commit his or her work to the cause of socialism and the working class.

Leon Trotsky rejected that argument. “The belief that we force poets, willy nilly, to write about nothing but factory chimneys or a revolt against capitalism is absurd,” he wrote.

The notion that art ought to dogmatically promote Marxist ideas arose out of the Stalinist doctrine of “socialist realism”.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, huge creative outpourings occurred across the arts, encouraged and supported by the Bolshevik Party.

But with the rise of Stalin, art and literature became tightly controlled.All artistic expression was expected to conform to the dictates of socialist realism.

This taught that it was the artist’s duty “to provide a truthful, historico-concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development”, taking into account “the problem of ideological transformation and the education of the workers in the spirit of socialism”.

In contrast, the authentic Marxist conception of the relationship between literature and politics is much more nuanced.

First, while it is necessary to recognise that literature should respond to the social contexts and historical currents in which it is produced, it should also be ascribed a high degree of autonomy.

As Trotsky wrote in his book Literature and Revolution, “A work of art should be judged in the first place by its own law.”

Second, to argue that politically progressive writing should not be the basis for Marxist literary criticism is not to dismiss such partisan literature as marginal or of inferior artistic quality.

There is a whole body of work that shows how it is possible to create work that is both aesthetically powerful and politically committed.

Think of the theatrical experiments of Bertolt Brecht, or the Russian Constructivists who took their work into the factories and the collective farms, or the “agit-prop” theatre groups who saw their work as a direct intervention in class struggle.

They all represent a powerful testimony against the smug liberal assertion that art is one thing and propaganda another.

Third, most writers would agree that to create great art you cannot seal yourself off from society or from the significant movements of the time.

But, as Terry Eagleton has argued, how political a piece of art should be is a historical question and should not be settled dogmatically for all time.

There are periods and societies where conscious, progressive political commitment is not a precondition for creating great literature.

But there are other moments - the rise of fascism during the 1930s for example - when to survive as a writer involves asking the kinds of questions that will likely result in political activism and engagement.

The 1930s was such a decade, compelling writers - even those who were not previously political such as Ernest Hemingway or WH Auden - to speak out.

In 1935, the first Congress of American Writers was held at Carnegie Hall in New York. Some 3,500 crammed into the auditorium to discuss the issues of the time.

Telegrams from Thomas Mann, Cecil Day Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read aloud, reflecting a time when it was impossible to speak about literature and politics in isolation from one another.

We live in a moment where it is fashionable to argue that literature should be apolitical. Martin Amis and his cult followers argue that politics has “withered away in this country and that’s a great tribute to its highly evolved character”.

They sneer at the great anti-war and anti-capitalist protests. But there are many notable exceptions who understand that, while the relationship between politics and art is a tense one, this is never an excuse to remain silent.

As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his poem In Dark Times, “They won’t say... when the great wars were being prepared for... they won’t say: the times were dark. Rather: why were their poets silent?”

Sinead Kennedy is a lecturer at Dublin City University.


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