Photo of Stalin and Gorky in conversation 1931

Stalin and Gorky in conversation 1931

Shostakovich's creative years were lived under the Communist rule of the Soviet Union. Three articles on this website discuss what influence this had on his music. The first, entitled 'Communism and Artistic Freedom', discusses the reasons why the Communist Soviet Union restricted an artist's (or any other individual's) freedom of expression. This article, entitled 'Socialist Realism and music', gives an explanation of why only a certain form of art was tolerated and how that form was defined. The final article, 'The Lady Macbeth Affair', describes how this ideology impacted on the Shostakovich's music and examines why his attempt to create an ambitious Soviet opera went astray. As all Shostakovich's string quartets were composed after the opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' the three articles seek to explain the social-political background of his string quartets.

Can music be 'socialist'?
...... and what is meant by 'realism' in music?

The doctrine of Socialist Realism is essential in understanding Shostakovich's music because it placed official restrictions on what he could publish in the years following the 'Lady Macbeth Affair' of 1936. So what is 'Socialist Realism'? And why should it have any relevance to music?

Simple definitions of Socialist Realism are easily dismissed. Let us first exorcise the most common: that Socialist Realism in music demanded simplicity or in Laurel E. Fay's words that: The only musical art deemed worthy of the working classes, and thus the only music demanded by the Soviet state, was to be defined by its accessibility, tunefulness, stylistic traditionalism, and folk-inspired qualities1.

Unfortunately this fails to isolate music composed under the constraints of Socialist Realism. Most music ever written, and certainly the vast majority ever performed, has been accessible, tuneful and traditional. Indeed many popular western composers of this period like Vaughan Williams and Canteloube were incorporating folk-music into their compositions. Any simple attempt to define Socialist Realism is doomed; particularly when it fails to address how the very concepts of 'socialist' and 'realism' could be expressed in music.

Certainly any music that possessed 'accessibility, tunefulness, stylistic traditionalism, and folk-inspired qualities' would have avoided being condemned as an example of 'Formalism', and as this charge could have had deadly consequences for composers it was hardly surprising that they tended towards producing works that were universally popular rather than imaginative. But anti-Formalism was not the same as Socialist Realism, because the latter aspired to being much more2.

To understand it we must go beyond trying to discover a common denominator in compositions and find the reasons why Soviet Russia might demand a particular style in music. If we can grasp these reasons it should prove easier to understand the essence of Socialist Realism even if a quick definition will, even then, remain unobtainable.

The roots of Socialist Realism, although not communism, can be traced back to the nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)3. Hegel was deeply concerned with evolution of human freedom throughout history. For Hegel history had meaning and significance because our world was not static. Our culture, our society and even our human awareness changed from one historical era to the next4. He believed that these changes indicated that we were not going around in circles but rather that we were evolving towards a goal: a society of optimal human freedom. Hegel did not define this freedom as our right to follow any blind desire, since he thought such desires be easily manipulate by others for their own gain. Rather he meant freedom to follow our 'true' desires which could only be defined through conscious, rational deliberation. In this belief he was following the tradition of Plato and Kant. Furthermore because reason was universal this ultimate goal would be a state where the interests of the individual and the ideals of society were in harmony.

Another idea of relevance to Socialist Realism was formulated by Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of the Spirit. There he postulated that every stage of cultural development produces its own specific form of art. Thus medieval art would reflect the feudal system just as bourgeois art would display the realities of capitalism. Every work of art was produced within a society by a member of it and was therefore a reflection of the values of that society. Also art could affect a society and cause it to change; to view itself differently. Society and its art are bound together and are in harmony with the spirit of the age5.

Given these beliefs it was natural to expect that the Russian Revolution would produce a society whose art would be substantially different to the bourgeois world it had overthrown. The question was what form would this art take?

Following the proletarian revolutions of 1917 6 and the assassination of the Romanovs the Bolshevik leadership began to consider how the art associated with post-revolutionary Russia would be defined. The civil war and then the famines and the first five-year plan were higher priorities but in October 1932, a meeting took place in the flat of the writer Maxim Gorky to discuss the form of Soviet art. Present were Gorky and some other prominent writers and Stalin who said that If the artist is going to depict our life correctly, he cannot fail to observe and point out what is leading it towards socialism. So this will be socialist art. It will be Socialist Realism. 7 Thus Socialist Realism was the art form which would reflect the new life of the proletariat, it would be a truthful reflection of the progressive, revolutionary aspirations of the toiling masses building communism. 8

At the beginning of 1933 Gorky published an essay entitled On Socialist Realism which defined the basic concept. This was followed by a further definition from Stalin cultures, national in form and socialist in substance, and statement in 1934 by the Party's representative, Andrei Zhdanov, at the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers defining Socialist Realism as depicting reality in its revolutionary development.

A characteristic of Stalin's style of leadership was to set targets without defining either meaning or practicality. Thus Socialist Realism was defined mostly in retrospect and even after Stalin's death the debate about what it meant was continuing. The consensus was that art should exhibit three elements. It should have an 'ideological content' (ideinost) meaning that it should express a core idea of communism. It should also exhibit a 'Party' (partiinost) element, meaning an active or militant aspect illustrating the human dynamic effort aimed at achieving the better future. Finally it should display a spirit of national popularism (narodnost) by its referencing the whole population rather than just a limited section as in bourgeois art 9. The concept of narodnost meant that music must be comprehensible to all and this insistence introduced a degree of conservatism into Soviet compositions.

The Bolsheviks under Lenin were indeed very interested that some 'bourgeois' pursuits, like classical music and even more surprisingly opera, should not only survive the upheavals of the revolution but be available to the proletariat. Consequently when he seized power in October 1917 Lenin made his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia, responsible for Party policy in cultural affairs and also ordered the restoration of the Bolshoi which had been damaged by artillery fire during the fighting10. As the German composer and dedicated Communist Hanns Eisler explained in 1927 musical understanding had always been a privilege of the ruling class; it required significant financial resources for the purchase of musical instruments, for teachers, for concert tickets; it also required an immense amount of leisure time. Eisler who, like Lenin, wished that the pleasure of listening to classical music should not be restricted to a privileged elite wrote, correctly articulating the Bolsheviks position, that only after the proletariat had taken power could a new musical culture gradually be formed11. In this new musical culture the proletariat would have access to this pre-revolutionary classical repertory.

So music under Socialist Realism could refer back to classical tradition. Indeed this should be used as a platform for further experimentation as an official statement clarified,

....but the policy developed by the Party is not to consign classical principles and techniques to the archives but to learn from them and develop them further.......and here we have notable examples in the way that Shostakovich and Prokofiev have continued classical traditions and at the same time embraced new content and form. The socialist-realist attitude to the classics is therefore one of critical analysis and development 12.

But such 'development' was not be taken too far. Hegel's idea that art and society reflect each other had become the dogma of zhiznetvorchestvo, that art is a life-creating activity. Thus Soviet art had not only to reflect the realism of revolutionary socialism - the inevitable progress of the proletariat toward the communist Utopia - but was also required to inspire it onwards. Western movements such as like Cubism, Dadaism, Serialism, Expressionism, Futurism and Surrealism were to be rejected. These were manifestations of the arcane or artificial styles of Formalism. Such art-for-art's sake were signs of the decay and degeneration of bourgeois society; they placed form above content; 'how' above 'what'13. Such self-indulgence by an artist would produce works alien to the new proletarian society now actively engaged in their heroic, collective project. By producing such works contrary to the popular movement these artists showed themselves to be opposed to revolution and were thus 'enemies of the people'.

Thus Socialist Realism was more than anti-Formalism. It wanted a new Soviet music; a music built upon the traditions of the past but not one of déjà vu quality; a music that transcended these traditions but one that was free of bourgeois elements.14

Soviet Russia failed to achieve this goal. In practice its music tolerated only restricted modifications to classicism and conservative harmony: any excess being perceived as justifying brutal suppression. Perhaps Marxism could have elevated the human spirit, in accordance with Hegel's philosophy, had the Soviet Kremlin behaved differently. Or perhaps, as Western libertarians would argue, its failure was inevitable because it is only through individuals pursuing their own personal interests that any common good can be achieved15.


  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.89. back

  2. Formalistic works were ones in which the syntax (musical form) was given more important than the semantic (the musical sentiment). Under this definition fugues would appear superficially to be formalist works, but Bach's fugues can also seem to deeply profound so the fugue, though suspicious, was not necessarily condemned. Experimental pieces based on, for example, Schoenberg's twelve tone rows, were however. Any avant-garde was almost certainly condemned. (Shostakovich Fourth Symphony - which he withdrew before its first performance - will serve as an illustration of what Shostakovich felt might be taken as 'Formalism'.) back

  3. It can be argued that the teachings of early Christianity show that communism easily outdates eighteenth century German philosophy. The connection that Hegel makes with latter-day communism is through one of his students: Karl Marx. back

  4. Hegel saw this as the natural evolution of the consciousness. It was neither, as the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 - 1814) had previously advocated, the self being that which it wills itself to be; nor was it, as French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck argued, an inheritance of acquired characteristics. Both of these thinkers had in common the idea that humans could change themselves either through a conscious decision (Fichte) or through habit (Lamarck). Hegel disagreed. He felt, as Spinoza had done more than a century before, that our lives were pre-destined. The deterministic causality that classical science assumed (which only after Hegel's death would be challenged by the 'measurement problem' in an otherwise equally deterministic quantum mechanics) seemed for Hegel too convincing. But, unlike Spinoza, Hegel introduced an Aristotelian teleology into his philosophy. For him there was a final purpose - a final goal - in Spinoza's mechanical universe. For Hegel the elevation of the human spirit was the ultimate purpose of the world and thus it was pre-destined to succeed. back

  5. It is impossible to summarise Hegel's philosophy in two paragraphs. But this controversial and radical philosopher is worth studying. In philosophy Hegel polarises opinions. As with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger more than a decade century later, philosophers ask themselves whether Hegel's thoughts show him to be a genius or a charlatan.

    Hegel did not help himself. He wrote in such a confused prose that it still causes his even most ardent supporters to despair. Articulate opponents like Schopenhauer and Karl Popper have had a field-day, insisting that he was deliberately obstrusive because he had nothing new to say. But others believe that his thinking was new, interesting and radical. For example he breaks with the tradition established by Plato by insisting that the purpose of political philosophy is not to determine how a society should be constructed but rather to understand how the world has evolved (Die Aufgabe der Philosophie besteht in der Rekonstruktion der historischen Wirkkräfte und Gesetzmäβigkeiten, nicht in der Legitimation politischer Institutionen). And Hegel believes that such an analysis can only be conducted at the end of an epoch: 'Minerva's owl begins her flight only at the onset of twilight' ( Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug - Hegel; Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Vorrede). back

  6. There were indeed two Russian revolutions in 1917 and both were a consequence of an earlier protest in 1905. On 'Bloody Sunday', 9 January 1905 (in the Julian calendar - 22 January in the modern, Gregorian, calender) 200 people were killed and 800 were wounded when an innocent and peaceful demonstration was crushed by the troops of Tsar Nicholas II. (Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, and certainly not his best, is entitled 'The Year of 1905'. It is dedicated to Saint Petersburg uprising. Nevertheless its late composition in 1957, and the relative insignificance of the 1905 uprising compared to the 1917 coup, seems to vindicate Solomon Volkov's contention that it reflected more Shostakovich's covert sympathy for the anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising of 1956.)
    Although the bloody suppression of the demonstration in 1905 marked the moral collapse of Nicholas's autocracy, his army still remained loyal. However the heavy casualties incurred by Russia in the First World War caused increasing dissatisfaction within the army and by 1917 it was in open revolt. On 27 February (12 March in the Gregorian calender) the February Revolution occurred and three days later the Romanov dynasty, which had been founded in 1613, came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. On 25 October (7 November in the Gregorian calender) a second 'revolution' (although it was more like a coup) occurred when the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg). This was what is generally referred to as the 'October Revolution'. back

  7. C. Vaughan James, Soviet Socialist Realism (Macmillan, London, 1973), p.86. back

  8. Edward M. Swiderski, The Philosophical Foundations of Soviet Aesthetics (Dordrecht Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), p.4. This and the previous quote illustrate the problems in differentiating the terms 'socialism' and 'communism'. In the nineteenth century the terms 'socialist' and 'communist' were interchangeable; a simplification which Stalin appears to have made in the quote above and a confusion which still exists in some Western political circles until today. However for Marx there was a difference. He regarded communism to be a revolutionary form of socialism. But since the goals of communism were not to be expected the day after a revolution twentieth century Communist parties tended to refer to themselves as 'socialist'. Socialism for them was progressive: a work in process. Now in power they would slowly achieve their ultimate aim - the harmonious society - and that would be communism.

    However these definitions should be confused with modern 'Democratic Socialist' parties. These are wide-spread throughout Europe and are often elected into (and maybe out of) the office of Government. back

  9. For further elaboration see Leonid Heller, 'A World of Prettiness: Socialist Realism and Its Aesthetic Categories' in Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (eds.) Socialist Realism Without Shores (Duke University Press, 1997) back

  10. Nadezhda Krupskaia shared this responsibility with the Commissar for Education, Anatole Lunacharsky (1875-1933). He had joined the Social Democratic Party whilst still a teenager in 1893 and had worked with Lenin editing the revolutionary newspaper 'Forward' (Vpered). Following the clamp-down by Nicholas II in 1906 Lunacharsky had gone into exile but returned in 1917 after the February revolution. As Commissar for Education he was extremely influential until the very end of the 1920's powerfully advocating the retention of the classical tradition. back

  11. See 'Musik und Musikverständnis' in Hanns Eisler: Musik und Politik : Schriften 1924-1948, Günter Mayer [ed.], VBE Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1973), p.45. back

  12. The quotation is from Vaughan James Soviet Socialist Realism p.93, the original source being given as: Bases of Marxist-Leninist Aesthetics (Osnóvy marksístsko-léninskoi estétiki) 1960, published by the State Publishers of Political Literature, Moscow, Institutes of Philosophy and History of Art of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and edited by A. Sutyágin. back

  13. Socialist Realism's condemnation of art-for-arts sake (as well as science-for-science sake) can be found in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature, for example in Nicholas Chernyshevsky 1853 essay 'The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality'. back

  14. David Pearson has written an essay along similar lines but dealing specifically with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It is available at some online subscription sites. back

  15. This is not an opinion that Plato would have supported. In The Laws (Nomoi, 875) he wrote ".....the proper object of true political skill is not the interest of private individuals but the common good. This is what knits a state together, whereas private interests make it disintegrate. If the public interest is well served, rather than the private, then the individual and the community alike are benefited." In his more radical work The Republic (Politeia) Plato again advocated the importance of the common interest above that of the individual and argued for an ideal state ruled by a virtuous elite. In the interest of the state myths and lies may be employed (Politeia, 415).

    Both Plato's and Aristotle's political philosophies reflect the structures of the city-states of ancient Greece, communities where it was not necessary to accommodate pluralism and consequently where the state could dominate the personal sphere. Karl Popper's popular work The Open Society and its Enemies investigates the influence that he believed these philosophers had (along with Hegel and Marx) in forging totalitarianism in the twentieth century. back