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Critical Realism and Socialist Realism

Georg Lukcs
Socialist realism differs from critical realism, not only in being based on a concrete socialist
perspective, but also in using this perspective to describe the forces working towards socialism from the
inside. Socialist society is seen as an independent entity, not simply as a foil to capitalist society, or as a
refuge from its dilemmas--as with those critical realists who have come closest to embracing socialism.
Even more important is the treatment of those social forces leading towards socialism; scientific, as against
utopian, socialism aims to locate those forces scientifically, just as socialist realism is concerned to locate
those human qualities which make for the creation of a new social order.
The perspective of socialism enables the writer to see society and history for what they are. This
opens a fundamentally new, and highly fruitful, chapter in literary creation. Let us take two points.
Socialist realism is a possibility rather than an actuality; and the effective realization of the possibility is a
complex affair. A study of Marxism (not to speak of other activity in the Socialist movement, even Party
membership) is not of itself sufficient. A writer may acquire useful experience in this way, and become
aware of certain intellectual and moral problems. But it is no easier to translate true consciousness of
reality into adequate aesthetic form than it is bourgeois false consciousness.
Again, while it is true that a correct theoretical approach and a correct aesthetic (i.e. the creation of a
typology) may often coincide, the methods and the results are not really identical. Their coincidence
derives from the fact that both reflect the same reality. A correct aesthetic understanding of social and
historical reality is the precondition of realism. A merely theoretical understanding--whether correct or
incorrect--can only influence literature if completely absorbed and translated into suitable aesthetic
categories. Whether the theory is correct or not is immaterial, since for a writer no theory, no conceptual
understanding, can be more than a general guide.
Our account of the similarities between socialist and critical realism would be incomplete if the
alliance between both these movements, and its historical necessity, were to be disregarded. The theoretical
basis of this alliance is socialisms concern for the truth. In no other aesthetic does the truthful depiction of
reality have so central a place as in Marxism. This is closely tied up with other elements in Marxist
doctrine. For the Marxist, the road to socialism is identical with the movement of history itself. There is no
phenomenon, objective or subjective, that has not its function in furthering, obstructing or deviating this
development. A right understanding of such things is vital to the thinking socialist. Thus, any accurate
account of reality is a contribution--whatever the authors subjective intention--to the Marxist critique of
capitalism, and is a blow in the cause of socialism.
But the alliance between critical and socialist realism is implicit also in the nature of art. It is
impossible to work out the principles of socialist realism without taking into account the opposition
between realism and modernism. In regard to the past, theoreticians of socialist realism are well aware of
this; they have always considered the great critical realists allies in their struggle to establish the
supremacy of realism in aesthetics. But the alliance is not merely theoretical. The historical insights in
these writers works, and the methods they used to achieve these insights, are vital to an understanding of
the forces shaping the present and the future. They may help us to understand the struggle between the
forces of progress and reaction, life and decay, in the modern world. To ignore all this is to throw away a
most important weapon in our fight against the decadent literature of antirealism.
As socialism develops, critical realism, as a distinct literary style, will wither away. We have pointed
out some of the limitations, and the problems, facing the critical realist in a socialist society. We have

shown that the scope of critical realism will narrow as a society comes into being the portrayal of which is
beyond the grasp of the critical realist. The critical realist will increasingly apply perspectives
approximating to socialist realism. This will gradually lead to a withering-away of critical realism.
All this argues the superiority--historically speaking--of socialist realism (I cannot sufficiently
emphasize that this superiority does not confer automatic success on each individual work of socialist
realism). The reason for this superiority is the insights which socialist ideology, socialist perspective, make
available to the writer: they enable him to give a more comprehensive and deeper account of man as a
social being than any traditional ideology.
We have already touched on the problem of typology. What is the key to these typical heroes of
literature? The typical is not to be confused with the average (though there are cases where this holds true),
nor with the eccentric (though the typical does as a rule go beyond the normal). A character is typical, in
this technical sense, when his innermost being is determined by objective forces at work in society, Vautrin
or Julien Sorel, superficially eccentric, are typical in their behaviour: the determining factors of a particular
historical phase are found in them in concentrated form. Yet, though typical, they are never crudely
illustrative. There is a dialectic in these characters linking the individual--and all accompanying
accidentals--with the typical. Levin was typical of the Russian land-owning class at a period when
everything was being turned upside down. The reader learns his personal peculiarities and is sometimes
tempted to consider him, not wholly wrongly, as an outsider and an eccentric--until he realizes that such
eccentricities are the mark of an age in transition.
The heroes of that schematic literature I have described altogether lack these features. They are not
typical, but topical. Their features are prescribed by a specific political intention. I should add that it is
always extremely difficult to isolate typical features. The typical hero reacts with his entire personality to
the life of his age. Whenever socialist realism produces authentic types--Fadejevs Levinson, or
Sholokhovs Grigory Melyekov--there is present this organic unity of profound individuality and profound
typicality. The characters produced by the schematists, on the other hand, are both above and beneath the
level of typicality. The individual characterization is beneath it (whereas Natasha Rostovas tripping step,
say, or Anna Kareninas ball costume are unquestionably typical), whereas what is intended to establish
their typicality may be irrelevant to their psychological make-up. This weakness is common, of course, to
all naturalistic literature--Zolas typical characters have similar shortcomings.
Naturalism, socialist or otherwise, deprives life of its poetry, reduces all to prose. Naturalisms
schematic methods are incapable of grasping the slyness of reality, its wealth and beauty. That naturalism
destroys the poetry of life is widely recognized, even by those critics and writers who have helped to bring
about this state of affairs. Characteristically, public opinion in the socialist countries was never as vain of
socialist naturalism as were bourgeois intellectuals of their modernism. But during the Stalinist period, as
we know, many crucial Marxist doctrines were misrepresented. Literary theoreticians, therefore, thought
up a poetical substitute for naturalism, revolutionary romanticism, instead of attempting an ideologically
correct aesthetic solution.