Media Representations of the Socialist Period

A Lecture given to the Stalin Society in 2002

Listeners to Radio Three hear a fairly steady barrage of anti-Soviet propaganda. Whenever a piece of music by a composer of the former Soviet Union is played, especially Dimitri Shostakovich, the announcer invariably has something to say about the “horrors” of life under Stalin. The same is true of other media of mass communication. For example, a recent Channel 5 programme on the T34 tank claimed that by the outbreak of World War Two Stalin had killed two thirds of the Soviet peasantry. It was not explained how, if this claim was true, the Soviet Union managed to resist and defeat the Nazi onslaught. We need to examine the political significance of this continual tirade against the communist movement and its past achievements.

SOURCES OF POPULAR HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE

Our actions in the present are influenced by our knowledge of the past. For example, our attitude towards the New Labour Government is shaped not just by our present experience of its pronouncements and policies but also by the ideas we have about the Labour Party and Labour governments in the past. Some of these ideas will derive from our own direct experience of Labour in the past but many of these ideas, perhaps most in the case of many people, especially younger people, come from our indirect experiences, from accounts of various kinds formulated by other people. This is in fact true not just of our knowledge of the past but also of our knowledge of the present, e.g. the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. A significant difference is that in the present it may be possible for us to acquire some direct experience of matters that concern us whereas for past events this is not possible.

Given that the first wave of socialism in the world has now run its course and succumbed to capitalist restoration, increasingly knowledge of the socialist period derives not from people’s direct experiences of the struggle for socialism but from various types of accounts of it. This is certainly the case for people in capitalist countries such as Britain but also is the case for the younger members of the former socialist countries such as Russia and China. In so far as people have any conceptions about the International Communist Movement they tend overwhelmingly to be of a negative kind. A typical view is that while socialism sounds like a good idea, it was tried, but in practice had disastrous consequences. This is a major obstacle in the way of renewing the struggle for socialism. Unless we can convince people that there was a very positive side to the struggle for socialist transformation and that indeed this was its principal aspect for a considerable time, then we will not succeed in rebuilding the revolutionary movement. Thus it is important that we examine the sources of everyday, popular historical knowledge.

Apart from our own direct experiences, our knowledge of the past comes from a number of sources. Among these are face-to-face accounts by other people of their direct experiences, oral tradition (i.e. what in a society is generally held to have happened in the past), studying in the education system and reading historical books and articles. If we consider contemporary Britain, then there are very few people around who have had sustained personal experience of participation in revolutions or living in a society undergoing socialist construction. More will have spent holidays in socialist countries or been on delegations but their knowledge from these experiences will not be very deep. It is at the perceptual rather than the conceptual level. There are some people – not very many – who come from families with socialist and communist traditions and from that source have acquired some positive knowledge of the struggle for socialism. It is likely that there are very many more who have formed a negative view of socialism from their families and other personal contacts. As for formal education, history is not accorded much importance nor very well taught. In so far as any knowledge of the history of socialism is acquired in schools, it tends to be of a negative character. Quite widely taught in universities are courses comparing the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany but the emphasis is usually on claiming an essential similarity. Anyway, most people quickly forget what they have “learnt” on courses of these kinds once they have passed their assessments and examinations. As for serious historical works, regardless of their ideological orientation, these are not all that widely read although there are some exceptions, e.g. Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad

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Much more important, when considering the sources of popular historical knowledge about the socialist period, are the various mass media of communication. These include books such as autobiographies, biographies and novels. Also there are newspapers, magazines, films, radio and television. Surveys show that on average we spend at least a quarter of our waking lives attending to the various mass media. Almost certainly these are the major sources of popular historical knowledge in general and knowledge of the socialist period in particular. Thus it is important that we carefully scrutinise the nature of these media representations, most of which embody negative images of socialism, so that we can begin to find ways of combating their negative influence.

CONCRETE EXAMPLES

Autobiographies are very popular and during the 1990’s one which sold literally millions of copies is Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. This is an account by the daughter of parents who were cadres in the Communist Party of China and who were subjected to serious criticism. It espouses a certain sort of spurious feminism and presents an unremittingly negative account of the socialist period in China. It has particularly appealed to female readers and in the vast majority of cases is the only book length account of modern China they have read. Not surprisingly, most of its readers accept it as an objective account and think that they have acquired sound knowledge of the struggle for socialist transformation in China. Given its outstanding publishing success, it is not surprising that in its wake it has spawned a whole genre of similar works by Chinese women writers.

Another recent publishing success, selling over one million copies, has been the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. Set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during World War II, it presents a very unfavourable account of the Communist-led ELAS resistance movement against the German occupation. They are represented as a bunch of drunken, murdering thieves when in fact they fought a very brave, sustained and successful armed struggle against the Nazi occupiers and virtually drove them out of Greece. Yet for many of the readers of this novel it was their only source of information about the history of Greece in World War II. At a literary workshop I attended to discuss this work, the great majority of those present were very resistant to the notion that its historical authenticity might be in doubt. This was particularly the case with those persons who had thoroughly enjoyed the work it literary terms. As Mao Tsetung pointed out, it is quite possible for a reactionary work of art to be aesthetically appealing and this simply makes it all the more poisonous.

Fortunately, in this case this reactionary work has been subjected to popular criticism. In 2000 a Hollywood film version of the novel starring Nicolas Cage was being shot on Cephalonia and this led to mass protests by the local people who were infuriated by de Bernieres’s denigration of ELAS. They were joined by an aged former Italian officer who was probably the real life role model for the fictional Captain Morelli. After Italy changed sides in the war he had actually fought alongside ELAS against the Germans.

Faced with the prospect of cinemas being burnt down throughout Greece, the producers of the film hastily changed the script to expurgate the negative depiction of ELAS. This stimulated an article in The Guardian detailing this incident and a programme on BBC Television about The Real Captain Corelli. Here we have a rare example of a media misrepresentation of a Communist-led struggle being successfully overturned by popular action. However, this was only possible because the people of Cephalonia had their own personal memories and oral tradition to draw upon as resource for opposing de Bernieres’s reactionary novel. Unfortunately this is not usually the case.

Back in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a whole spate of novels by dissidents in the Soviet Union published in the West. Most widely read were the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Many leftists were taken in by Solzhenitsyn and some, such as Georg Lukacs, even hailed his novels as a renewal of socialist realism. As has subsequently become clear, far from wishing to renew socialism, Solzhenitsyn and his kind wished to hasten its disintegration. More recently, in the West, there have been thrillers such as those by the successful American writer Martin Cruz Smith. His state investigator hero, Arkady Renko, is an alienated character who finds himself at odds with corrupt Soviet apparatchiks during the Brezhnev period and their successors during the 1990’s. His novels include Gorky Park (made into a Hollywood film) and Red Square. Arkady’s father is a retired general who is portrayed as having been “Stalin’s Sword”, a mass murderer on a grand scale thoroughly despised by his son. Another example of this genre is Archangel by Robert Harris, a friend of Peter Mandelson. The plot here is that at the end of his life Stalin sired a son to be his successor. The boy has been brought up in secret and reared to take up where his father left off when he reaches his maturity. Reactionary nonsense as it is, it none the less has a readership of hundreds of thousands.

It is hardly surprising that during the Cold War period that anti-Sovietism should have been a prominent theme in films, especially those made in Hollywood. Some of them, reactionary as they were, were entertaining and even had artistic merit such as the film of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate. Perhaps more interesting is the continuation of the theme in the post-Soviet period. A recent example is the film Enemy at the Gate which is set in the Battle of Stalingrad. The plot revolves around characters based on two real life people: Vasily Zaitsev (played by Jude Law), the ace sniper, and a fifteen year old cobbler, Sasha, who successfully spied on the Germans and paid for it with his life. We are led to believe that the outcome of the whole war depends on whether or not a crack German sniper can take out Vasily. We can probably accept a certain artistic licence in the film exaggerating the significance of the ‘sniperism’ cult. What is not acceptable is the way in which little inserts throughout the film seek to discredit the Soviet regime.

Another sniper (played by Ron Perlman) is supposed to have trained in Germany during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and then on his return to the USSR been tortured by the NKVD. The conditions in which the Soviet soldiers and civilians were living in during the siege of Stalingrad – in holes in the ground – are very realistically depicted. Yet there is a scene in which we see Nikita Khrushchev, who was sent by Stalin as political commissar, in palatial surroundings with piles of rich food and drink. This is obviously intended to suggest that the leaders of the CPSU were indulging themselves in fine living while the masses were on the brink of starvation. The leading female character is a Jewish student who falls in love with the sniper Vasily. At one point she announces that her father has explained to her that Jewish people can never be free until they have their own homeland, i.e. that they are oppressed in the Soviet Union. The film embodies a logical contradiction between the fact that one the one hand the Battle of Stalingrad was a great victory against fascism – indeed the turning point of World War II – while on the other hand claiming that the Soviet regime that was responsible for this victory was utterly rotten. Even so, in artistic terms Enemy at the Gate at least has some merit in comparison with the dreadful biopic Stalin with an over-made-up Robert Duvall in the lead role supporting by a glittering galaxy of stars including Joan Plowright as his mother-in-law. Despite being one of the most expensive European films ever made, this vicious attack on Comrade Stalin is so bad that it has never been on general release.

As previously mentioned, Radio Three has for many years been mounting a campaign against the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time. Whenever any piece of music by Soviet composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian is played, the introductory announcement and often an interval talk as well routinely includes some anti-communist propaganda. It is not just a question of the interpretation of events that is at issue, but simple matters of factual inaccuracy. For example, more than once I have heard an announcer claim that Shostakovich was forced to join the CPSU by Stalin. In fact it was during the Khrushchev period that he was forced to join. The dubious Shostakovich “memoirs” put together by Solomon Volkov are frequently quoted as gospel truth without any mention of their questionable authenticity.

Quite ridiculous interpretations of the meaning of Shostakovich’s music are put forward in interval talks. For example, Symphony No.7, the Leningrad, was quite consciously written by Shostakovich to symbolise in a fairly naturalistic way the resistance of the Soviet people to the Nazi invasion. Yet on at least one occasion the announcer told listeners that it “really” symbolised the composer’s anguish with Stalin’s tyrannical regime. Some commentators even claim to have found coded insults to Stalin in the notation of the musical scores. It can only be a matter of time before it is claimed that Stalin is the wolf in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

It is true that Shostakovich had a uneasy relationship with the Soviet regime. It is also true that the outstanding music that he did produce came out of this dialectical conflict. Other composers who enjoyed a more harmonious relationship with the Soviet state do not escape attack. On Radio Three it is often claimed that Prokofiev only returned to Russia in the 1930’s because his career was faltering in the West. It is never mentioned that he had a genuine enthusiasm for socialist revolution as is evident from his Cantata on the Twentieth Anniversaty of the October Revolution written in 1937 but not performed during his lifetime. When composers who were committed practitioners of the artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism are mentioned, such as Aram Khachaturian, it is often implied that there is something inferior about their work, especially if it was widely popular among the masses as was the case and still is so with this composer. What is hardly ever mentioned on Radio Three is the remarkable flowering of musical culture in the Soviet period and its sad demise in recent decades.

On television it is historical documentaries in particular that convey negative impressions of the socialist period. With respect to the Soviet Union most of them are about the World War II period. The usual storyline is that a complete mess was made of the economy during the 1930’s leaving the Soviet Union deficient in the modern weapons needed to fight the Nazi invaders. In fact, as Stalin had predicted in 1931, it was only because of the breakneck industrial development brought about by the Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union did have, in the nick of time, the modern weapons necessary to beat off the Nazi attack. Stalin’s leadership of the war is always presented as disastrous with the Soviet Union winning the war in spite of him.

With China it is the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s role in these movements that receives the most attention. They are presented in unremittingly negative terms and Mao is depicted as a power-crazed maniac. There have been some series which give a reasonable account of the period in China from the end of World War I leading up the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, but after that the course of events is depicted as being downhill all the way until the counter-revolution led by Teng Hsiao-ping following the death of Mao.

What is never mentioned in these documentaries is the extraordinary transformations brought about in the lives of the workers and peasants during the socialist period. Nothing is said about considerable rises in living standards, mass education, women’s liberation, cultural developments, etc.. The masses are always depicted as lacking any sort of initiative or creativity, as the passive subjects of the party leaders. One important problem with these “documentaries” is that although they have much smaller audiences than fictional films shown on television, they may be seen by many people as being more historically truthful precisely because they are being presented as factual, non-fiction material.

THEORETICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The rule of capital is normally maintained not by the ruling class and their agents exercising physical force but by means of the pervasive influence of their ideas, their bourgeois ideology, over the working class and intermediate strata. There are a number of different ways in which this ideological hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci called it, is maintained. Religion, education, art, literature, everyday popular culture and even language itself play parts in keeping the masses in a state of false consciousness. In contemporary capitalist societies the mass media have a very important part in maintaining ideological domination and Louis Althusser has suggested that they have supplanted religion in this respect.

Of course people are not totally under the domination of bourgeois ideology because alternative, oppositional ideas are developed out of their own practical experiences of life under capitalism. These everyday experiences are the ultimate sources of conscious resistance to capitalism and the desire to get rid of it and replace it with something better. The problem we face in the current period is that with the decline of the socialist and communist movements and their organisational expression in the form of political parties, trade unions, etc. the formal, institutional structures do not exist which enable the not very articulate, confused conceptions generated by the everyday class struggle to be developed into coherent revolutionary doctrines which provide a guide to revolutionary action.

If we look back to the mid-twentieth century in Britain there were millions of workers and middle strata people who described themselves as “socialists”. Most of them did not have a very detailed and sophisticated conception of what this meant but they were clear about the basic ideas: that a division of society into exploiters and exploited is wrong, that great inequalities cannot be justified, that common ownership of the means of production is the way to overcome these divisions, etc.. Many of these people had a greater or lesser degree of sympathy with the socialist Soviet Union and China. This is no longer the case. Now very few people call themselves “socialists” or have any positive conception of the nature of socialism. Given that there has been counter-revolution in the socialist countries and continuous exposure to hostile media images of these countries, most people have only a negative conception of socialism if, indeed, they have any conception at all.

Most people are discontented, to a greater or lesser degree, with life under advanced capitalism. It is not so much sheer quantitative deprivation that is the problem now as the qualitative deficiencies of life under contemporary capitalism. What is not readily accessible to people is a definite revolutionary political doctrine that enables them to clearly and consciously articulate their political dissent. Given the historical block that has been placed on socialism and communism, some people turn to environmentalism which is essentially a pessimistic, petit bourgeois outlook. But for the majority there is a widespread state of what the sociologists call pragmatic acceptance, i.e. most people are critical of many aspects of their lives but see no viable alternative. Part of the process of struggle to change this passive state of consciousness is the struggle to contest the dominant anti-socialist conceptions embodied in everyday, popular historical knowledge.

DISCUSSION

The discussion following the above talk to the Stalin Society focussed around ways in which we can combat the present negative conception of the socialist period in popular historical knowledge.

  • Produce our own cultural works giving a positive presentation of the socialist period – histories, novels, etc.. There is the problem of distribution but the system is “leaky”. Some publishers might put out works that would stir up controversy because this would be good for sales.
  • Write letters to newspapers and magazines when they publish anti-communist material.
  • Complain about misrepresentations of socialism on radio and television. This can be done by phoning in.
  • Make our own films, videos and sound tapes. The new media technology makes this much easier than it was in the past. There are some alternative distribution networks which might take such material.
  • Anti-communist works are included as set texts in GCSE and GCE A Level syllabuses. There are a number of series of study notes on these texts. We could produce some alternative ones.
  • Distribute leaflets outside cinemas showing anti-communist films. Some years ago, the Stalin Society produced a pamphlet commenting on the German film Stalingrad (director Joseph Vilsmaier, 1994) and it was distributed outside the arts cinema in Nottingham where it was being shown. This resulted in the programme notes for a later screening being changed.

POSTSCRIPT

It turns out that an imperialist agent was present in the audience for this talk. The New Statesman for 10th. June contained a scurrilous article by Johann Hari about this meeting of the Stalin Society. (Reprinted in The Guardian on 22nd. June under the heading ‘Sickle cells: Britain’s last Stalinists defend Uncle Joe’ and with no less than two pictures of Comrade Stalin!) This scion of the Alastair Campbell School of Journalism couldn’t even get his facts straight. (The meeting was in the afternoon, not the morning; the Stalin Society was founded in the 1990’s, not the 1930’s; misquoting participants, etc.)

Hari seemed particularly incensed because some of the audience were old, “elderly to the point of decrepitude” as he put it. New Labour politicians have made it clear that they regard older people as an unwanted burden on society. It can only be a matter of time before some policy think tank comes up with a plan for encouraging euthanasia – perhaps a larger state pension if one agrees to be snuffed out at a certain age. The author used his report to tack on attacks on Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn. As the former editor of the New Statesman, Steve Platt, pointed out in a letter the following week, Hari misquoted Scargill as having said “I am sick and tired of listening to the so-called ‘experts’ today who still criticise the Soviet Union and, in particular, Stalin.” What Scargill actually said was “I am sick and tired of listening to the so-called ‘experts’ who today still criticise the Soviet Union and its leadership – and in particular, Stalin – at that time (1939) for not being ready, not having enough resources nor having the military strength necessary to withstand or stop the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.”

The New Statesman seems to have developed an obsession with Stalin. The main editorial the following week (17th. June) was headed ‘Stalin in school’ and of the British education system said: “The entire education system is now run on the same principles that underlay Stalin’s and Mao’s five-year plans”. All of this is desperate stuff and one wonders whether the New Statesman has a plan allowing it to stagger on for another five years. Since he bought it before the 1997 General Election, the former Paymaster General (to Peter Mandelson) Geoffrey Robinson has had to subsidise this declining publication to the tune of over £3million. Even a wealthy capitalist such as Robinson may soon decide that enough is enough. It could be that despite being “elderly to the point of decrepitude” the Stalin Society will outlive the New Statesman.

Harry Powell, September 2002.

POST POSTSCRIPT

The author of this lecture was approached by the Secretary of the Stalin Society to prepare and deliver it. Fortuitously it resulted in the Stalin Society receiving much wider publicity than ever before. The normal practice of the Society has been to publish as pamphlets the texts of the lectures given at its meetings. At her request the text of the lecture was submitted to the Secretary for printing as a pamphlet. In due course the pamphlet was listed as being for sale in a circularised list of Stalin Society publications. Then the author received a letter from the Secretary stating that the pamphlet would not be published because “Aspects of your presentation which give your view of the history of the Chinese revolution cannot be endorsed by the Stalin Society.” Presumably this statement refers to the phrase “the counter-revolution led by Teng Hsiao-ping following the death of Mao”. In fact the Stalin Society does not have a formal position on the Chinese Revolution but it is likely that the suggestion that there had been a counter-revolution in China offended the sensibilities of the members of the Association of Communist Workers who control the Society. At its last Congress the “Communist” Party of China decided that capitalists could become full members. Another great leap forward along the socialist road, no doubt.