Source: Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, p.143.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
by IIya Ehrenburg
Henry Reignery Co., Chicago. 1966. 230 pp. $3.50.
With a Special Supplement, The Death of Art
by Russell Kirk
Kirk shoots at the wrong target. Taking The Thaw as an example, he contends that 1918 “put an end to Russian literature.” “The terrible decay of Russian literature,” he asserts, “is produced directly by Marxism, and cannot be arrested so long as the Marxist ideology prevails.”
To evade discussing the Trotskyist explanation that the decay of Russian literature as of all Russian art is a reflection of the degeneration of the 1918 Revolution – due in the final analysis to the imperialist encirclement of the workers’ state – Kirk misrepresents the Trotskyist position, picturing it as the simplistic belief that “somehow the Revolution had slipped into the hands of Wicked Men, Stalinists, who perverted the pure doctrines of Marx and Lenin.”
The decay of art is not confined to the Soviet Union and therefore cannot be put “directly” at the door of Marxism even if you honestly believe that Marxism and Stalinism are the same thing. Kirk, I think, could find superior examples of the decay of art closer at home. With no more research, in fact, than a trial run across the channels of any TV set. A frank examination of the causes of the decay of art in America would, however, lead Kirk directly to the door of some giant corporations and ultimately to the capitalist system itself. Like the Russian hucksters, Kirk, we may suppose, prefers not to get crossed up with the powers that be. It is safer – and more profitable – to confine one’s attention to the phenomenon as it appears in the camp of the Enemy.
The material basis of the ideology expressed in Ehrenburg’s novel is easily shown. Indeed it is so crudely apparent it seems difficult to miss.
On the death of Stalin, the dictator’s heirs faced the simple political need of relaxing tensions. They needed time to consolidate their position. They promised (1) an end to the worst abuses of the Stalin regime, (2) an improvement in the living conditions of the masses. These promises were taken at face value by many impressionists and superficial observers. They interpreted them as signs of the “mellowing” of the ruling clique, of the “self-reform” of the parasitic Soviet bureaucracy.
The political maneuver found its reflection in Soviet “literature.” The Moscow oligarchy, as on occasion under Stalin, loosened the check reins on its “artists,” perhaps even gave them a touch of the whip. The result was mild criticism of some of the bureaucratic evils that beset the Soviet peoples, and intimations that things were mow to become better under the new crew in the Kremlin. Ehrenburg’s novel was part of this criticism-on-order.
The bureaucracy as a whole could not stomach even this thin soup – eloquent testimony to their state of nerves in face of the mass hatred. Ehrenburg had to complete the ritual of criticism by the ritual of “self-crtiticism” and the book proved as ephemeral as the promises of more consumers’ goods.
The Thaw is, nonetheless, interesting. Its caricature of the middle bureaucracy carries conviction. They are as stodgy intellectually barren and emotionally repressed as their American middle-class counterparts. As Ehrenburg intimates, an abyss separates them from the generation that made the Revolution.
Those that stand out sharpest are the artists and the “typical bureaucrat” (who suffers the typical fate of becoming a scapegoat and “vanishing:” after being called to Moscow.) Volodya, the cynical money-grubbing painter who knows how to “suck off” the top bureaucrats, strike us as a possible self-caricature by Ehrenburg. In fairness to the author we must point out that he does introduce us to genuine Soviet artist, Saburov, regarded by most in the provincial town as “abnormal” if not “schizophrenic,” since, at the cost of hunger and the indifference of society to the canvases he accumulates in his hovel, he insists on painting according to his own conscience.
Stalin is not mentioned in the book. But his rule is symbolized by the Siberian winter that holds the characters in deep freeze as the novel opens. The dictator’s genial reign is indicated more directly in the abysmal housing suffered by the workers, the still-felt wounds of the great purges of the Thirties, some typical bureaucratic “excesses” indicative of the frame-up system, the pervading dread of Moscow ...
Due to the spring “thaw,” Ehrenburg’s novel has a happy ending. In real life, unfortunately, a thaw is yet to be seen.
Last updated on: 22.2.2006