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Socialist realism in Czechoslovakia? Part 2.

The previous part of the study focused on the perception of socialist realism prior to the Communist take-over in 1948 and the subsequent period. It outlined the contemporary methodological views, particularly the totalitarian and modernist approaches. We arrived at the opinion that a certain compromise was in place, with the system being formed not only by means of directives from above, but also by the sedulity, either deliberate or unpremeditated, on the part of the individuals, whereby an essential role was played by the distribution and embracement of a specific language, "speaking Bolshevik". Furthermore, we defined socialist realism as a strategy based on a consistently built and controlled organisational structure, with the Union of Czechoslovak Composers being its main buttress in the domain of music.

Socialist realism as an ideology

The collective debate was determined by deformed Marxism as the one and only possible path leading to socialism, to the ideal of a classless society, in the belief of the collective spirit of joint creation. Art, which within Marxism was considered to be part of the "economic superstructure", was attached an extraordinary importance in promoting the idea of socialism. The strategy of those wielding the power was an unprecedented assertion of the ideology of socialist realism, applying the principle of "totalitarian marketing", precluding even the slightest competition. The fundamental ideology was the Stalinist doctrine, formulated in the Brief Course of History of the All-Union Communist (Bolshevik) Party, which highlighted the journey from Marx through Lenin to Stalin as the sole legitimate advancement of Marxism. Socialist realism was duly proclaimed the one and only creative method and the single possible mode of committed art.

The official methodological guidelines for literature were presented by Ladislav Stoll at the plenary session of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in January 1950. In his speech, Stoll clearly enunciated the historical structure of the engaged history, describing the progressive and the reactionary tendencies, and, giving examples of specific artists, showing relatively plainly how things should and should not be done. The figure of Ladislav Stoll can serve us as an instance of a representative of the so-called party intelligentsia. Although without any education of note (he had only completed a technical secondary school and attended a one-year training course at the commercial academy), in 1946, Stoll was appointed a professor, and later on, named President of the University of Social and Political Sciences. In 1926, he had joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which in 1934 sent him to Moscow to work as an interpreter from German. During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, he ceased his public activities. After 1948, Stoll held numerous political functions, in which he always advocated the Stalinist conception of literature. Owing to his being closely associated with President Klement Gottwald, he survived the wave of political purges at the end of the 1950s. In 1952, he assumed the post of chairman of the government committee for the building of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and subsequently even served as Minister of Education (1953-54), and Minister of Culture (1954-60). Most significantly, from 1946 Stoll was continuously a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and it was exclusively thanks to his being politically active that he became the main spokesperson of Czechoslovak literature. At the time, the installation of uneducated, yet sufficiently engaged figures to specialist posts was a common practice. It was, however, not only the result of implementing the dictatorship of the proletariat; another reason was the chronic absence of educated persons. (During the course of World War II, the state lost approximately 250,000 citizens, as well as two cultural communities--the Jewish and the German, with the latter perishing for good in the wake of its post-war eviction. Within two emigration waves, the first in 1939, the second in 1948, mostly of highly qualified people, as many as 150,000 went abroad. During the 1950s, about 250,000 were jailed, of whom at least 8,000 died in prison. Some 140 prominent figures were executed. And, for political reasons, young people were disallowed access to higher and specialist education.) The key role in the domain of music was played by the works of Antonin Sychra and Miroslav Barvik, mentioned in the previous part. Yet the situation was more complicated than in literature. During the lifetime of Generalissimo Stalin, a more specific form of that which socialist realism actually represented in music--at least within the demarcation of what was and what was not--failed to be, and evidently could not be, defined. The efforts to characterise the music composed by applying the method of socialist realism did not concentrate on its immanent means, but dealt with the type of creative questions that should be raised. In line with the period interpretation of the Marxist reflection theory, art was a prominent tool in the re-education of people, served to expand their range of vision, and facilitated them in taking their bearings amidst intricate societal problems--and the only issue that could be rendered was the building of socialism and, ultimately, communism. The general belief was that a beautiful society must require a beautiful music. Which was a highly nebulous concept, even in the contemporary apprehension. On the one hand, the literature and visual-art works that came into being were undoubtedly novel, contemporary and characteristic for the time as regards their socialist content, form, language and technique, however primitive they might have been. Yet nothing new was actually created with regard to music. This was a consequence of the aforementioned circumstances, as well as the sheer servility of the young cadres, whose "radicalism" actually manifested itself more in music critique than their own work, against the government in which the post of Minister of Culture was held by the two generations older historian and musicologist Zdenek Nejedly, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, a relentless promoter of Bedrich Smetana and castigator of Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek, or the leadership of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers, helmed too by figures who had joined the Communist Party back during the period of the inter-war republic. We should also bear in mind that the Czech musical culture (the creators and theorists alike) was burdened by a considerable conservatism, with original manifestations of the avant-garde being rather an exception proving the rule; hence, unlike the situation in the Soviet Union, it was not so clear as to what precisely artists should disclaim (the Soviet communist critics relatively often gave Alexander Mosolov's composition The Iron Foundry as a deterrent example). Whereas in literature, the fine arts, architecture and film the ideology of socialist realism was cultivated in Czechoslovakia precisely and above all on the basis of rejecting the modernism of the pre-war culture, the music domain experienced a continuous development of the inter-war traditionalism, primarily based upon Bedrich Smetana's legacy.


In the wake of the closing of the universities at the beginning of WWII, a multitude of students were forced to take up blue-collar jobs, and they selflessly helped to form the working-class movement, thus radicalising the formerly rather apathetic masses. And, following the end of the war, these people were much more capable of formulating their requirements. The vision of a socially just state and the longing for it, for a world order different from that which had caused the military conflict, as well as a great trust in the Soviet Union, the liberator, was shared by a large proportion of Czech society. After the end of the war and, in particular, the Communist coup ?n February 1948, the working class began boldly distancing itself from the "intelligentsia", resorting when doing so, among Other things, to the Marxist conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Slogans like "Professors to mines!" were not uncommon. In the communist rhetoric, artists, scientists and persons working in non-manual jobs were not referred to as "the people", but "the working intelligentsia". Their position was actually inferior in the societal hierarchy, as outlined in the following sentence: "Only in the service of the people does the intelligentsia become part of the people. That is, not sharing knowledge in the name of progress, yet service in the name of re-education". Stalin himself termed artists "engineers of the human soul". Accordingly, the prime objective of musicologists and music writers was supposed to be setting the tasks and goals for the youngest generation of composers en route to socialist realism, criticism and self-criticism of the previous creative activities, and, first and foremost, seeking a theoretical framework for the moulding of socialist realism in music.

The years 1949 and 1950 in particular saw the seeking of the path to establishing the ideology of realism in music and the quest for the actual position of music, and musicology for that matter, in society. There is no doubt that society radicalised, yet the scale of notions of and approaches to the current reality and, especially, the future was quite variegated. The differences did not rest in the set objective - the attainment of socialist realism - the thorniest issues were the embracement of the cultural heritage, or rather, the relationship to it, primarily as regards inter-war music, alongside the apprehension of the socialist realism aesthetics, as well as the concept of the methods of asserting the cultural policy.

When it comes to the revolutionary phase of the Stalinist cultural policy (1948-1951), Czech historiography has frequently divided it into the so-called radical wing, associated with the activity of the party bodies, particularly the Culture and Propaganda Department, which was directly subordinate to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, headed by the agile politician Gustav Bares; and the so-called moderate wing, which was represented by the state executive authorities, i.e. ministries, whose competencies also included culture (the Ministry of Information, dubbed the "Ministry of Truth", was helmed by the prominent party ideologue and Stalinist Vaclav Kopecky, the Ministry of Education and Edification, which in October 1948 was renamed the Ministry of Education, Sciences and Arts, was managed by Zdenek Nejedly; ministers were not directly dependent on the party leadership). The "radicals" mainly included members of the young, up-and-coming generation (the new cadres), who had only joined the Communist Party after 1945. They deprecated any continuity with the pre-war culture (both artistic and political), they intended to build a brand-new world, root and branch, and they also fiercely denounced the artists who had publicly recanted their pre-war work, and demonstratively endorsed the building of socialism. They were tenacious propagators from the ranks of workers, farmers and people's creators. The "moderates", on the other hand, mainly hailed from among the artists and theoreticians who had become members of the Communist Party back prior to the outbreak of World War II. They had no tolerance whatsoever for modernism and the avant-garde, yet they gave preference to transformation and re-education.

The "moderates" were of the opinion that if artists were to self-critically repudiate their pre-war output as wrong and go on to espouse socialist realism instead, they should be allowed to participate in the collective building of socialism and should be afforded the opportunity to pursue further artistic activities. They championed a conjuncture with the progressive (in the sense of the socialist idea) traditions of the past. Beyond the domain of cultural policy, plenty of examples have been mapped pertaining to the disputes between the "radicals", who abhorred any continuity, and the "moderates", in the fields of literature (the wrangles relating to Frantisek Halas, Frantisek Hrubin, Konstantin Biebl, Karel Teige and Vitezslav Nezval), the fine arts (the argument about Emil Fila) and film (the discord about Otakar Vavra's feature Krakatit, based on Karel Capek's novel).


As regards music, however, the polarity of approaches was not so distinct, which was connected with the aforementioned servility on the part of the young generation of composers and the traditionalism of the pre-war musical culture, as well as the far more firmly rooted continuity between teachers and pupils. What is more, unlike in the case of the other arts, the number of new cadres among composers, performers and musicologists from working-class backgrounds was low. Major disagreements thus only emerged in the domain of vaudeville, commercial (pop) music, musicology and pedagogy, yet even there the more heated debates were more often than not motivated by the schism between the generations, geographic pertinence (the long-term rivalry between the regions--Brno, Ostrava--and the centre Prague), or merely personal grudge.

As far as it was possible, the Stalinist cultural policy in Czechoslovakia strove to link up to the past, not to annul it, yet recast it to its own liking. The preservation of at least false conjuncture was a vital content of the propaganda, therefore, a new history was designed - of great significance was the promotion of parallels between the Hussite movement and Communism, for instance - and on that account, manifestations akin to socialist realism were also sought in history. (By the way, the very idea of socialist realism was only retrospectively attributed to the great Stalin, allegedly accruing from his conversations with Maxim Gorky.) Emphatic proclamations about the necessity to do away with everything that was old were to remain mere proclamations, as more radical tendencies got dangerously close to the Leninist idea of revolution, while not so much converging with the Stalinist conception.

Socialist realism as a method

A fundamental role in the formation of the Stalinist doctrine in post-February 1948 Czechoslovakia was played by the distribution, both controlled and spontaneous, of a singular parlance--"speaking Bolshevik"--terminologically and stylistically alike. New words, phrases, collocations and platitudes afforded scope for goal-directed interpretations, pseudo-objective criticism and advocacy of one's own doing. The so-called reflection of reality in music, with all the attendant written and merely thought (potential) attributes, became a mantra, a veritable magic formula for criticism, self-criticism, denouncement and defence of personal enunciations and collective utilitarianism. In 1951, V. V. Vanslov's book Reflection of Reality in Music was published in Slovak translation, evidently the very first text to have presented to the Czechoslovak readers an attempt to apply the Leninist-Stalinist "reflection theory" to music. Vanslov sought to prove that, by means of the set text and its immanent tools, music can reflect reality, "mainly expressing the inner world, depicting emotional states, unveiling human experiences". Yet his reasoning had nothing in common with H. H. Eggebrecht's theory of programme music (Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht: Understanding Music: The Nature and Limits of Musical Cognition), as it was based on the use of pseudo-mimesis. The main vehicles of representation specified by Vanslov included: intonation (when a composer uses in music a characteristic tune--a motif--of a peasant song, for instance, he/she will thus depict both the peasant and the conditions in which the peasant lives); onomatopoeia (should a composer reflect bad weather, he/she will imitate the sounds of thunder and the drumming of rain); genre (if a composer wants to imply a funeral, he/she will employ the motif, rhythmic-melodic model of a funeral march); musical quotations ("In this case, composers directly, or in a slightly modified form, quote someone rise's or their own music, which is closely linked with a certain epoch and with a certain social milieu characteristic of it, thus concisely painting in the typical traits of this very epoch or milieu.");, and stylisation ("Stylisation is understood as a deliberate creation of music in the spirit of someone rise's style, with the aim to attain musical representation of the reality that has shaped this style."). All the mentioned formulae soon became part and parcel of the Czechoslovak socialist realism aesthetics, yet they most notably enriched the vocabulary used by music critics, who would amply bring them to bear in order to voice praise or condemnation. Simply as the situation might demand.

Everyone could somehow sense what the dominant ideology deemed to be "wrong" (de facto, any modernist style), while that which was "right" could be formulated in line with the current need, given by personal preference, spite and belief, interpretations of the idea of social justice and dissent between the generations. In Czechoslovakia, burdened as it was by an extreme servility towards the Soviet Union, and, whenever the need arose, redefining the sense of its existence, this intellectual game was embraced with pleasure. The leftist, social and even socialist orientation of post-war Europe was apparent and comprehensible, yet the mindless adoration of Stalin (the Soviet Union) and the virtually unchallenged acceptance of the directive programme--in this case, in culture and art--and the attendant phraseology introduced by the system represented by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, now gives rise to embarrassment, at the very least. The transformation of the country into a people's democratic republic had been essentially prepared prior to WWII, and it was finally nailed down by the actual removal of political opposition through the setting up of the National Front (a conglomerate of leftist parties with a single programme, one based on the elimination of the entire right). The process was then given a definite green light by the demonstrable victory of the Communists in the first post-war elections, in May 1946.

The debate about the sense of contemporary music conducted in the Euro-American cultural space after 1945 was exploited in the given political situation in Czechoslovakia, as it was assumed by proponents of both sincere and manipulative strategies, constructed on the nebulous terms and phrases pertaining to the method of socialist realism. Such phrases as "the revelation of typical experiences", "specific expression of human emotions", as well as "collectivism", "folksiness" or "bringing up of the new human", could epitomise virtually anything. They entered the vocabulary used by the left front, the surrealists and the poetists, served as a platform for the Marxists, and became the doctrine of the radical Stalinists.

If we still want to consider socialist realism as a method, or, more precisely, a compositional method, the characterisation of actual techniques appears to be markedly limited. The fundamental, and the sole, criterion was interest in melody, since "without melody there is no music". Words were supposed to sing, and music was expected to speak, which resulted in the composers being compulsorily Inspired by folklore, their many a time vulgar extracting of the classics in the sense of fictitious reflection in programme music, an almost unconditional application of the classical forms, thematic and motivic work in the classical fashion and, most significantly, a declared subservience of all musical means to melody itself. Everything had to be beautiful, optimistic and, in particular, "comprehensible". Just as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy smoothly resolved every historical-sociological problem, simple too was the formula for the present--"should you perceive reality pessimistically -you will be occupied by the form, you will be a formalist". By and large, one had to conform to the Zhdanov aesthetics, end of story. The requirement for unity of the content and the form was also met by other than the immanent means of the respective art: understood as the "content of music" was the text set. This resulted in a clear gravitation towards giving preference to vocal and vocal/ instrumental music, ranging from songs and song cycles, through mass songs and choral pieces, a great amount of cantatas, to operas. The sheer arbitrariness of interpretation thus offered up plenty of personal and "collective" projections, which, however, proceeded to the selfsame outcome. Paradoxically, many theses, founded on the most striking of cliches, are still today applied in film, as well as autonomous composition, and have been resorted to in the unceasing debate on the sense of contemporary music.

Socialist realism as a characteristic trait of the Stalinist era

The overly great scope for discussion and the growing influence of the self-styled cadres (many of them rank-and-file party members who, owing to their fervent engagement, ascended meteorically to the top echelons of the Communist bodies) began to seriously imperil and impair the bureaucratic system of the central cultural policy, based on the propagation of the only possible truth. Consequently, at the beginning of 1950, Czechoslovakia saw the start of a gradual reorganisation of the culture scene, with a number of "redundant" organisations being dissolved and the ill-considered recruitment of Communist Party and trade union members suspended. Screening of the existing members and candidates was launched, and newly specified requirements for the acceptance of new applicants were laid out. An era of disclosing the enemy within commenced. The most dreadful outcomes of these endeavours were judicial murders, following on from trumped-up charges, many of which were aimed against the most orthodox and faithful protagonists and advocates of the Stalinist dictatorship. No one could be sure about anything, and being branded as a "formalist" or a "cosmopolitan" could lead to total elimination. The political show trials soon became part of the Stalinist phraseology, and such terms as "Slanskyism" (in a show trial, Rudolf Slansky, a Czechoslovak communist politician, a long-time member and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was sentenced to death and subsequently, on 3 December 1952, executed) or "Slingoism" (Otto Sling, a high-ranking functionary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in Brno, and deputy of the Provisional and Constituent National Assembly, was executed in 1952) began to be used to designate virtually anything that, either objectively or subjectively, could be deemed as not aiming at socialism. Labelled as ? manifestation of "Slanskyism" could be a bad mood, excessive engagement, counter-revolutionary or espionage activities, or common theft. The victors were neither the "moderates" nor the "radicals", but the individuals who had managed to take their bearings in the situation and duly adapt themselves.


That which took place in cultural policy almost immediately resonated in literature and film, somewhat later affected the fine arts, and, finally, with a fairly significant time lag, influenced the activities of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers and other music organisations. It is impossible to judge whether it was a wilful tactic or a result of inconsistency, yet the truth is that, owing in part to this vacillation, and if we disregard the sheer absurdity of the issue of socialist realism in music, the purges among the ranks of musicians were not as fearsome as those in the other artistic spheres, while the musical culture was rather reduced to a mediocre, all-embracing greyness, with nothing as gross being produced as in the domain of literature. After all, the majority of the outstanding socialist-realist compositions were represented by works that had been created at the time prior to the February 1948 coup (e.g. Miloslav Kabelac's cantata Do Not Retreat! and Vaclav Dobias's Czechoslovak Polka) or were more often defined thematically, in the sense of the literary content (the title, the set text) than by their actual musical structure.


The major objective pursued in 1949 and 1950 was to involve as many composers as possible in the building up of socialism, with the greatest attention being paid to vaudeville (popular) music, mass songs and cantatas. During the following two-year period, the emphasis was placed on quality rather than sheer quantity. In 1952, the members of the head office of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers and, later on, the participants in the sessions of the Brno branch's bodies, began castigating the "thematic theory". "... We should bear in mind that the so-called political theme or political subject does not in itself make socialist realism, yet, contrariwise, may sorely discredit the very idea of socialist realism ... How to apprehend the fact that an apolitical theme can make socialist realism and vice versa?... I think that we should come to understand that the most important thing is that the creative subject, the artist himself is a convinced socialist." (A shorthand record from the session of the Central Committee of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers in Prague in October 195Q.) Once socialist-realist pieces had forfeited their theme, there was nothing left to make them socialist art. The term "socialist realism" thus turned into an empty platitude.

In conclusion, one would be tempted to say that socialist realism in music, either as a style or a method, has never existed. That it was instead a mere conglomerate of windy phrases, parasiting on the alluring vision of a classless society, just as it was a methodological-organisational strategy with the aim to achieve power, profiting from the Stalinist propaganda's populist marketing. Accordingly, from today's angle of vision, the term "socialism realism" can be rather comprehended as a bearer of connotations, which can be identified more in terms of geography and time with the space of the Soviet Union's influence during the period of the Stalin dictatorship than aesthetically or stylistically. Should we then attempt to characterise the music that was produced at the time without applying ideological platitudes, it appears to make more sense to work with the aesthetic categories of historicism, epigonism, watering down of the 19th-century artistic arsenal and the sociologising terms of pop or populist culture. Thus our next task will not be to strive to further describe socialist realism in terms of an ideological centre issuing guidelines pertaining to real application in practice, but to concentrate on the music as such. The article in the next issue of our magazine will therefore not deal with "socialist realism in Czechoslovakia", but with "musical culture in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1953".
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Title Annotation:history
Author:Pantucek, Viktor
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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