Lenin’s terror, being attached to objective conditions, like a still-existing capitalism, had some limits. But Stalin’s terror, operating after the liquidation of capitalism, is directed at thoughts – the ‘vestiges of capitalism,’ as Molotov calls them, adding that they ‘are extremely persistent in people’s consciousness.’ It is consequently unlimited in its application. ‘The tasks of the ideological front,’ observes Zhdanov, ‘ … are not removed, but, on the contrary, grow more important under conditions of peaceful development.’ […]
[. . .] Everything in a totalitarian state is eventually sucked into the vortex where totalitarian man interminably revindicates himself.
The recent Soviet campaign against cultural freedom and diversity becomes all too comprehensible in this light. The totalitarian man requires apathy and unquestioning obedience. He fears creative independence and spontaneity. He mistrusts complexity as a device for slipping something over on the regime; he mistrusts incomprehensibility as a shield which might protect activities the bureaucracy cannot control. After all, the mission of art is clear and definite. In the words of Konstantin Simonov, ‘We must show the Soviet person – the builder of the future – in such a light that the audience and the whole world will see the moral and spiritual superiority of people who have been reared in a socialist society.’ ‘We have in real life, living,’ adds Alexander Fadeyev, the secretary of the Soviet Writers Union, ‘those heroes who created the new social order, who are the personification of the new moral values.’
The paintings of Picasso, the music of Stravinsky are strangely disturbing. They reflect and incite anxieties which are incompatible with the monolithic character of ‘the Soviet person.’ Their intricacy and ambiguity, moreover, make them hard for officialdom to control [. . . ] Complexity in art further suggests the whole wicked view of ‘cosmopolitanism’ summed up for the Communists in the conception of Europe. ‘It is not by chance that the Russian Com munists attack Picasso,’ Malraux has written. ‘His painting is the presence of Europe in its most acute form. In the order of the spirit, all that which Russia calls formalism and which she has been deporting or tirelessly destroying for ten years, is Europe.’
The conclusion is clear. Let artists turn their back on Europe. Let them eschew mystery, deny anxiety and avoid complexity. Let them create only compositions which officials can hum, paintings which their wives can decipher, poems which the Party leaders can understand. This is the Diktat of the state. [. . . ] The delicate phrases of Alexander Fadeyev at the World Congress of Intellectuals are characteristic: ‘If hyenas could type and jackals could use a fountain pen,’ they would write like T. S. Eliot, Dos Passos, Sartre and Malraux.
In an article for dissemination by the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, Vladimir Kemenov exhausts the arsenal of philistinism in his denunciations of Picasso, Henry Moore, Georgia O’Keeffe, even of individualists so comparatively restrained as Cezanne and the impressionists. Modern art, says Kemenov, is ‘a mixture of pathology and chicanery, which trace their origin to the daubs painted by the donkey’s tail. … In order to analyze this work, the healthy normal people of the future will seek the services not of the art expert, but the psychiatrist.’ The healthy normal art of the future, one would gather, will be modeled on Alma-Tadema, if not on James Montgomery Flagg. Official Soviet painting today certainly bears out the inference.
The campaign against the free creation of music is even more notorious. Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Shostakovich and the others have sinned against the desired banalities of form and sound. ‘This music,’ observes the president of the Association of Soviet Composers, ‘openly harks back to the primitive barbaric cultures of prehistoric society, and extols the eroticism, psychopathic mentality, sexual perversion, amorality, and shameiessness of the bourgeois hero of the twentieth century.’ Pravda even lashes out periodically against the jazz bands: ‘Instead of the popular Soviet songs . . . they reproduce melodies filled with tavern melancholy and alien to the Soviet people.’ No form of esotericism is too small to be dangerous to totalitarianism.
The Communist slide rule has similarly produced absolute equations for literature, for the films, for philosophy, even for drama critics and for clowns.
* * *
Yet the true horror from the western viewpoint lies in the fact that the artist practically always gives in. For every Mayakovsky, who kills himself, a thousand exhibit masochistic delight in accepting correction and promising never, never to do it again. [. . .]
No one should be surprised at the eagerness for personal humiliation. The whole thrust of totalitarian indoctrination, as we have seen, is to destroy the boundaries of individual personality. The moral balance of power is always with the Party as against the person. Those who cave in, as Dwight Macdonald accurately notes, do so not so much because they lack moral courage as because they lack good conscience. They can never be confident in asserting their own individuality against the Party; after all, Number One may always be right. The totalitarian psychosis thus sickens the whole society.
Originally published in 1950