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Comrade Culture

Comrade Culture

Culture played a vital role in the survival of communist regimes, offering a means to falsify reality on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Iulia-Sabina Joja
Communism and Culture: An Introduction
by Radu Stern and Vladimir Tismaneanu (Palgrave Macmillan, 230 pp., $30.80)

Vladimir Tismaneanu knows something about communism. His father Leonte was an influential propagandist for the Romanian Communist Party. His mother Hermina was a physician and Communist Party member herself. Both fought in the Spanish Civil War. Vladimir loved his parents while loathing their politics. Leonte and Hermina’s son, an escapee from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship in 1981, would become a leading scholar and critic of Soviet communism.

Tismaneanu joined another distinguished academic, Radu Stern—a professor of art history at the University of Lausanne who specializes in European avant-garde—in writing a book entitled Communism and Culture. Their 2022 work is not irrelevant to a number of political questions we face today in our authoritarian, demagogic moment. Cold War communism mastered the exploitation of culture as a means to manipulate society and falsify reality.

Stern and Tismaneanu divide communist culture into pre-Stalin, Stalinization, and post-Stalin periods. “Paradoxically, the only possibility to continue to justify art [under communism] was to make it die . . . art had to give up creating ‘beauty’ and become useful,” Stern and Tismaneanu write. Censorship is the linchpin of the communist approach to culture. But then culture as a form of resistance also features as a prominent concept in Communism and Culture

The authors walk the reader through decades of communists’ cultural appropriation, manipulation, influence, and control over societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the process they highlight case studies of world-famous communist cultural figures such as Pablo Picasso, “the most celebrated Communist after Stalin and Mao Zedong,” and Che Guevara, “the revolutionary [who] became a capitalist commodity.” 

There’s a level of accessibility in this book that permits even the newest students of the topic to follow the story with ease. The reader is introduced to the major themes of communist culture. There was the “new man” concept through which communists insisted that culture and art become de-personalized in order to re-engineer society as collective and unitary. Socialist realism was the overarching cultural program to which all art and culture had to submit. Stern and Tismaneanu illustrate how this phenomenon is still being misunderstood and misrepresented in the West. Ironically, many Western art historians describe socialist realism as a kind of “photographic art.” In reality, communists used art to falsify and aestheticize the hideous reality they were creating. 

Lenin insisted all literature must be party literature and militant in character. Later, Joseph Stalin introduced the cult of personality. Stalin was passionate about culture. Stern and Tismaneanu write, “Shocking as it might sound, one cannot deny the fact that Stalin had a Weltanschauung and that he was, in his own way, an intellectual. A self-taught, homicidal, liberticidal, and fanatical one, but an intellectual nevertheless.” Propaganda posters portrayed Stalin as the sun. In countries such as Romania and China, re-Stalinization meant a doubling down on the cult of personality around Mao and Ceaușescu. 

Grotesque myths of “heroic pioneers” were invented—myths that outlived Stalin—that glorified laborers who mightily exceeded coal production quotas and hailed the children who denounced their parents for hiding grain (through songs, plays, poems, operas and biographies they were encouraged to inform on family members). Soviet methods were adopted by Chinese Communists. The ficticious story of Pavlik Morozov—a patriotic young boy who denounced his father—took root in China. Note the authors, “totalitarian regimes are mythocracies. Political myths are their driving forces, the mobilization narratives meant to create mass enthusiasm, passions, illusions, commitments, and engagement.” 

Stern and Tismaneanu illustrate the vital role culture played in the survival of communist regimes over decades. For them, culture is control. The manipulation and domination in the cultural sphere enabled the falsification and reconstruction of reality in the most absurd of manners. At the individual level, according to Leon Trotsky, the “new man” should be able to “harmonize himself” and achieve complete control over his biological functions to “create a higher social biologic type . . . a superman.” For those who refused to pray at the altar of the “new man,” communists invented the gulag. Of course, Stalin had his hunt for the external enemy too. The praise of anything Western, “from film to toothpaste . . . became a dangerous endeavor” through which one would easily be labeled “cosmopolitan” (read: Jewish) or “anti-Soviet” and end up in a gulag.

The first of its kind, a gulag known as the Belomorkanal (the White Sea Channel) was built by forced labor in the early 1930s and held captive tens of thousands of political prisoners. The Soviet secret police actually invited artists to document the gulag. Photographers, painters, and writers, including Maxim Gorky, rushed to portray this new and grim facility for incarceration, leaving its reality out—the barbed wire, watchtowers, armed guards, and tens of thousands of dead bodies. The photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko was convinced that he could define reality. His portrayal? He rendered images of an orchestra entertaining at an impressive, gigantic construction site. The year was 1928; fake news was born. 

Stern and Tismaneanu argue that resistance against communist culture was difficult. No matter the form or stage, it is worth emphasizing that communism transcended authoritarianism and was always totalitarian in its goal to fully remake society. In the West there was naiveté and sometimes outright ignorance about the totalitarian nature of the communist project. 

Within the communist bloc, resistance took the form of an underground counterculture. There were jazz and rock music, Samizdat literature, political jokes, and the broadcast of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. These forms of resistance were miraculous given the censorship that leaders across the bloc deployed. The authors portray how censorship became a raison d’être for communists and relay how the Nazis got the idea of burning books from the Soviet practice of it in the 1920s.

Communism and Culture is an illuminating story of how totalitarian regimes have abused culture. It is a well-documented, investigative, and critical chronicle that reminds new generations of how culture and art can be distorted, strangled, and destroyed. 

With resurgent authoritarianism around the world and the threats to liberal democracy across the West, Stern and Tismaneanu have in any case given us much food for thought. American traditionalists and reactionaries want to ban books, including literature once deemed classic. Woke progressives want to alter texts, introduce new material, and commandeer history in order to make their new utopian society. In a manner of speaking, we’ve been here before.  

Iulia-Sabina Joja is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and former adviser to the Romanian presidency.

Image: A Soviet-era mural as part of the Zaisan Memorial in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Wikimedia Commons: Sebacalka/Mikerun255)

AuthoritarianismCultureBook ReviewsEastern EuropeRussiaPolitical Philosophy