Socialist realism as a theory of art and literature is a part of Marxist ideology of dialectical materialism which was later on adopted by Lenin and Engel, leaders of Communism in Soviet Russia. It is at once distinguished from naturalism which is photographic reproduction of the surface of Society, and from psychological realism inspired by Freud and concerned with the externalization of the impulse, sex drives and complexes lying in the dark depth of the subconscious. Socialist realism assumes the fundamental fact that literature is the product of socioeconomic forces and in its continued progress through various stages it reflects the changing aspects of this structure which rests upon the conflict and tension inherent in Society. There is a tension between the mind of the artist and the external conditions of society and there is more fundamental conflict between the two opposite classes in the processes of economic production, the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the labourer, or the haves and have-nots. Every individual is at once a separate or particular entity and a type of the economic group to which he belongs. Socialist realism is a clear reflection of the reality at the heart of society and the real nature of the human individual in a social group.
In his illuminating work Studies in European Realism G. Lukas has observed that socialist realism is based upon the vital relationship between the living social forces and ideological productions ‘the central category and criterion of realist literature is the type, a peculiar synthesis which organically binds together the general and the particular both in characters and situations. . . It depicts man and society as complete entities. The best and most impressive illustration of social realism, according to this writer is found in the social novels of Balzac because he displays ‘deep understanding of the real conditions, all the inherent contradictions of the French capitalist society of the day. The essence of Balzac’s ‘socialist’ realism lies in the recognition of certain basic facts- such as, social beings as the basis of social consciousness; the conflict which must necessarily manifest itself in every class of society; character as a combination of particular and typical traits; concentration upon the principal factors of the social process in their historical development as reflected in several characters. The point is summed up in a vivid, clear cut fashion in a remarkable paragraph: “The writer, the historian of private life, must describe the hidden fluctuations of society, the intrinsic laws governing its movements, its incipient trends, its invisible growth and its revolutionary upheavals”- not the external glitter of great historical events, but the internal riches found in the characteristic development of social elements.
A new revolutionary bias was given to socialist realism by the leaders of communism in Russia who were engaged in a life and death struggle to end the capitalist economy and bring about a classless or stateless society. The kind of Revolution, says Gorki, will arise from a social crisis, ‘when the underdogs no longer want the old order and the top dogs can no longer maintain it’. It was, therefore, demanded that literature should become a weapon of this revolution by clarifying this conflict, by sharpening the awareness of the underdogs regarding this reality and by enthusing and inspiring them to work and struggle to snatch the power and the instruments of production from the hands of their exploiters and blood-suckers. The writers were also to remember that the truly great literature is the popular literature, which ‘loosens the tongue of the dumb, and gives eyes to the blind.’
As a consequence of this doctrinaire bias literature became a veritable propaganda machine, completely under the control of political ideologist, which unchecked would have ended its essential freedom. The danger of this overemphasis on content as opposed to form, on the temporal problem as against the permanent source of appeal which great literature must contain, was realized before long and Engel himself insisted upon ‘Vivacity of Art’ to be combined with the depiction of the social truth. A Shakespearean type of veracity was the desideratum where the faithful reflection of the social processes in a particular phase of history should be combined with such elements in character and situation as are of universal significance and constitute the timeless quality of great art.
Socialist realism has produced a respectable body of literature, critical and creative, and its advocates are spread all over the world. They are sincere in their convictions and dogmatic in their approach to writers and works of other ages and nationalities. But outside communist countries they are in a microscopic minority and have not yet succeeded in convincing the lovers and creators of literature that imagination is creative, in the best sense, only if it follows and illumines the path carved out by political philosophers and literature is vital only if it remains tied and moored down ti the bed-rock of social conflict and changes as interpreted by Marx and his followers. Socialist realism is a form of determinism which in unwary hands may push literature to the brink of annihilation. Art and literature have always been fostered by societies where the gulf between the culture of the few and the taste of many was not wide and the masses could share the feelings of the classes. Equality is all right and the masses should have their own voice and literature but progress in literature, as in other spheres, should mean a leveling up, not leveling down, the establishment of intellectual aristocracy as against the reduction of everything to the popular standard.