Beyond Socialist Realism

The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism.
by Miklós Haraszti.
Translated by Katalin and Stephen Landesmann with the help of Steve Wasserman. Basic Books/New Republic Books. 163 pp. $14.95.

The Velvet Prison appears at a particularly opportune moment. The author, a prominent Hungarian opposition intellectual, argues that in Communist countries the relaxation of state control over cultural affairs has not—indeed, cannot—enhance the freedom of the artist. Paradoxically, he contends, the “soft” censorship favored by the authorities in Hungary and other “liberal” Communist nations has been much more effective than the Stalinist tactics of bygone years in ensuring the obedience of the intellectual class. The modern totalitarian system, he says, has proved flexible enough to accommodate change and at the same time sufficiently strong to make certain that the pace and direction of change fulfill the needs of the party-state.

This is an important message in the age of glasnost. Of all his policy innovations, it is the easing of the rigid press and artistic regimentation of the Brezhnev period which has earned Mikhail Gorbachev his warmest applause in the democratic world. Some, in fact, predict that under Gorbachev’s stewardship Soviet cultural policy may come to resemble that of Hungary, considered the most easygoing in the Soviet bloc.

But if Miklós Haraszti’s analysis is correct, Soviet artists can look forward not to creative liberty, but rather to a situation in which “censors and artists alike are entangled in a mutual embrace.”

Haraszti believes that through the shrewd application of rewards and punishments (but mainly rewards), post-Stalinist authorities have created conditions under which artists, instead of detesting a system which limits their autonomy, support the system’s preservation out of self-interest.

Two techniques have been employed toward this end. First, there is economic inducement. At the most basic level, the state ensures that the artist is reasonably well-paid and that his works are published, performed, or exhibited. The state provides retreats for approved artists at luxurious villas expropriated from the wealthy after World War II. Perhaps more important, by limiting the supply of art, the state has guaranteed that artists will never again endure the indignities of the marketplace. Haraszti places special stress on this point, for he believes that, at heart, artists despise and fear the market as the breeding ground of popular culture and economic uncertainty. Culture is therefore regulated like a closed shop in which only the select few who have earned credentials at state institutions are permitted membership. This ensures both that the supply of artistic workers never exceeds the audience and that there are no unemployed, and potentially dissatisfied, artists. So strong is the attachment of Hungarian artists to this system of economic guarantees that the practitioners of culture have actually enlisted in the anti-reform camp when proposed economic changes threaten to inject a dose of market discipline into cultural life.

The second device designed to win the loyalty of artists is the relaxation of cultural controls. Where formerly artists—all artists—were expected to adhere to a specific style, socialist realism, now they are free to practice a variety of forms and techniques. Although a relatively few subjects and styles remain taboo, official tolerance has advanced to the point where art need not have an overtly political character. As Haraszti observes: “The enlightened socialist state understands that politically neutral art is no threat.” The state even takes modest pride in permitting some approved artists to express veiled criticism of the one-party System. So long as it is voiced in the context of support for state socialism, mild, carefully-coded opposition is looked on as evidence of the regime’s liberality. The authorities recognize that monolithic art will inevitably fail, whereas art which presents differing interpretations to the outside world will strengthen the regime’s credibility, both at home and abroad.



The parallel between the Hungarian experience about which Haraszti writes and Gorbachev’s scheme for change in the Soviet Union is striking. A samizdat account of a speech to a group of intellectuals reports that Gorbachev urged journalists and artists to become champions of change. According to the Soviet leader, given the absence of competing political parties, intellectuals should function as a political opposition. But as in Hungary, the kind of opposition force envisioned by Gorbachev is a loyal opposition whose criticisms will not stray beyond the boundaries of “the revolution.” His conception is thus of a rationed opposition, an opposition which would solidify what Victor Serge called the “regime of Directed Thought.” In this context, the term opposition is a misnomer, since Gorbachev’s objective is art which serves the interests of the current political leadership at the expense of other factions within the party or bureaucracy.

Haraszti sees this evolving system as “less visible, and more dangerous” than the hard censorship of the Stalin period. More dangerous because of the stress placed on self-censorship, and because artists, rather than seeing the one-party state as the enemy, actively strive to serve the state’s goals.

Haraszti cautions against a definition of censorship which focuses solely on the elimination or transformation of words or images. Modern censorship involves rather “the whole context of culture, not just state intervention but all the circumstances that conspire to destroy the basis of autonomous or authentic artistic activity.” In addition to the financial rewards doled out to artists willing to function within the revised guidelines, the state offers a hitherto unknown social importance to “those people of quality hungry for power.” Where formerly the idea of the artist bearing responsibility for the future of society was considered strange, today it is normal, so that now “every artist is a minor politician of culture.” In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev is attempting to turn the intellectuals into ambassadors of perestroika.

Haraszti is contemptuous of the oft-repeated contention that a decrease in repression leads to a “braver culture,” an idea he dismisses as the “optimism of the tourist.” Although the methods of control have been altered, the end result differs not at all from the function of art under Stalin. Moreover, under Communism the status of art has been returned to the role it occupied during feudalism. Art is once again inextricably linked to the Establishment while artists have again become “nothing more than ornamentalists of an unchanging world order from their earliest youth to their old age.”

And what of dissident writers, those who refuse to accept their appointed function even under the newly relaxed system? Haraszti contends that dissidents face a more daunting challenge than when a prison sentence or even the firing squad was meted out to nonconformists. The state, of course, retains a vast array of bureaucratic techniques to prevent the rebellious artist from practicing his craft. In addition, dissidents are treated as outcasts by the fraternity of approved artists, which views them as immature and a threat to the status quo. The dissident exists in a ghettoized condition, his audience restricted to other dissidents. He is thus “doomed to irrelevance.”



While Haraszti’s analysis is a needed antidote to those Westerners ever eager to interpret the slightest evidence of official tolerance as proof that artistic freedom flourishes in this or that Communist country, his pessimistic conclusion about the status of the intellectual opposition seems overdrawn. Haraszti claims that his assessment applies uniformly throughout the Communist world, but his opinions mainly derive from contemporary Hungarian reality, where the Kádár regime has in fact largely succeeded in coopting the intellectual class. But whereas in Hungary intellectual dissidents have been unable to forge alliances with other potential forces of political opposition, a significantly different situation prevails in Poland. There, a vast alternative culture has taken root since the time of Solidarity’s active existence. If the regime does not heed the advice of the opposition, it is certainly aware of the opposition’s ideas and programs, as are the masses of Poles who have regular access to the hundreds of unofficial publications printed each month.

Part of the problem stems from Haraszti’s fascination with perfect, self-contained systems. He himself comes from a family with deep roots in the Hungarian Communist movement, and in his youth he was drawn to ultra-leftist ideologies, especially Maoism. Although a confirmed democrat, Haraszti continues to apply a Marxist style of analysis and vocabulary when interpreting political problems. This combination of democratic conviction and Marxist method lends an unusual clarity and power to his writing; at the same time, it occasionally leads to unjustifiably extreme conclusions.

Nonetheless, Haraszti’s lapses into unwarranted pessimism should not obscure the importance of his message. He has pointedly reminded us that, despite the beguiling words of modern, pragmatic, and “Western-oriented” Communist leaders, Communism as a system remains incompatible with real freedom.



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