Gorky on Soviet Literature

Maksim Gorky, Soviet Literature (Speech at The First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers). August 1934


After the dismal experiment in “proletarian” art the party line shifted to a more palatable nineteenth-century realism. The famous revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky was restored to favor as the leading exponent of the “new” literature, which he extolled at a 1935 writer’s congress as “socialist realism.” With some variation in the rigor of its enforcement, this was the Communist line in the arts, while modernistic experiments were systematically condemned as “bourgeois formalism.”

The Communist-Leninist Party, the workers’ and peasants’ government of the Union of Socialist Soviets, which have destroyed capitalism throughout the length and breadth of tsarist Russia, which have handed over political power to the workers and the peasants, and which are organizing a free classless society, have made it the object of their daring, sage and indefatigable activity to free the working masses from the age-old yoke of an old and outworn history, of the capitalist development of culture, which today has glaringly exposed all its vices and its creative decrepitude. And it is from the height of this great aim that we honest writers of the Union of Soviets must examine, appraise and organize our work….

… We must grasp and fully realize the fact that in our country the socially organized labor of semi-literate workers and a primitive peasantry has in the short space of ten years created stupendous values and armed itself superbly for defense against an enemy’s attack. Proper appreciation of this fact will reveal to us the cultural and revolutionary power of a doctrine which unites the whole proletariat of the world.

All of us-writers, factory workers, collective farmers-still work badly and cannot even fully master everything that has been made by us and for us. Our working masses do not yet quite grasp the fact that they are working only for themselves. This feeling is smoldering everywhere, but it has not yet blazed up into a mighty and joyous flame. But nothing can kindle unfit it has reached a certain temperature, and nobody ever was so splendidly capable of raising the temperature of labor energy as is the party organized by the genius of Vladimir Lenin, and the present-day leader of this party.

As the principal hero of our books we should choose labor, i.e., a person, organized by the processes of labor, who in our country is armed with the full might of modem technique, a person who, in his turn, so organizes labor that it becomes easier and more productive, raising it to the level of an art ….

The party leadership of literature must be thoroughly purged of all philistine influences. Party members active in literature must not only be the teachers of ideas which will muster the energy of the proletariat in all countries for the last battle for its freedom; the party leadership must, in all its conduct, show a morally authoritative force. This force must imbue literary workers first and foremost with a consciousness of their collective responsibility for all that happens in their midst. Soviet literature, with all its diversity of talents, and the steadily growing number of new and gifted writers, should be organized as an integral collective body, as a potent instrument of socialist culture.

The Writers’ Union is not being created merely for the purpose of bodily uniting all artists of the pen, but so that professional unification may enable them to comprehend their corporate strength, to define with all possible clarity their varied tendencies, creative activity, guiding principles, and harmoniously to merge all aims in that unity which is guiding all the creative working energies of the country.

The idea, of course, is not to restrict individual creation, but to furnish it with the widest means of continued powerful development.

It should be realized that critical realism originated as the individual creation of “superfluous people,” who, being incapable of the struggle for existence, not finding a place in life, and more or less clearly realizing the aimlessness of personal being, understood this aimlessness merely as the senselessness of all phenomena in social life and in the whole historical process.

Without in any way denying the broad, immense work of critical realism, and while highly appreciating its formal achievements in the art of word painting, we should understand that this realism is necessary to us only for throwing light on the survivals of the past, for fighting them, and extirpating them.

But this form of realism did not and cannot serve to educate socialist individuality, for in criticizing everything, it asserted nothing, or else, at the worst, reverted to an assertion of what it had itself repudiated.

Socialist individuality, as exemplified by our heroes of labor, who represent the flower of the working class, can develop only under conditions of collective labor, which has set itself the supreme and wise aim of liberating the workers of the whole world from the man-deforming power of capitalism.

Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family…

The high standard demanded of literature, which is being rapidly remolded by life itself and by the cultural revolutionary work of Lenin’s party, is due to the high estimation in which the party holds the importance of the literary art. There has never been a state in the world where science and literature enjoyed such comradely help, such care for the raising of professional proficiency among the workers of art and science.

The proletarian state must educate thousands of first-class “craftsmen of culture,” “engineers of the soul.” This is necessary in order to restore to the whole mass of the working people the right to develop their intelligence, talents and faculties -a right of which they have been deprived everywhere else in the world. This aim, which is a fully practicable one, imposes on us writers the need of strict responsibility for our work and our social behavior. This places us not only in the position, traditional to realist literature, of “judges of the world and men,” “critics of life,” but gives us the night to participate directly in the construction of a new life, in the process of “changing the world.” The possession of this right should impress every writer with a sense of his duty and responsibility for all literature, for all the aspects in it which should not be there….

Source: H. G. Scott, ed., Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress (Moscow: Cooperative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R, 1935), pp. 53-54, 64-67.

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