Requiem for Communism

Charity Scribner, Requiem for Communism. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003. 245 pages.

In 1996 Jutta Scherrer, the eminent Russia scholar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, published a collection of essays titled Requiem for Red October (Requiem für den roten Oktober, Leipzig: Universitätsverlag).

These essays, written over the course of the decade from 1986-96, describe the changes affecting the Russian intelligentsia during a time period when, at least initially, the notion of a perestroika of the Soviet system still had the potential of a remodel rather than the tear-down it became in the fall of 1993.

While Scherrer’s requiem concerned the Soviet political system and was written in installments concurrent with the events of the day, Charity Scribner’s requiem addresses artistic and aesthetic issues and is written in retrospect.

Requiem for Communism is not so much about the collapse of the political apparatus per se, as the changes in outlook and mood following the loss of the ideology that very apparatus had proclaimed and was designed to promote.

At the center of her inquiry, therefore, are concepts such as the “Collective,” “Solidarity,” “Nostalgia,” “Mourning,” “Melancholia,” and “Disavowal” – the six chapter headings of her study.

There is another major difference between the two requiems: Scherrer’s is focused on politics in Moscow, Scribner’s on artistic happenings and products in the former Soviet satellites (the GDR and, notably, the Poland of Solidarity) as well as “the West” (predominantly England).

She addresses these issues through literature, sculpture and installation and, most prominently, film, as well as the museum.

With regard to the latter, Scribner creates the formula that summarizes her enterprise: the move “from the working collective to the museum collection.”(Charity Scribner. Requiem for Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003), 24-25, 43.)

The funereal perspective common to both accounts – though considerably more prominent in Scribner’s – is of the end of a time, in fact the end of history and of the material and spiritual losses brought about in its wake.

Scribner conceptualizes the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe as the end of the “second world,” a term coined in the 1950s cold-war climate and not much in use since about the 1970s.

Her “Introduction” discusses the term. This “second world,” as industrialized as the first, but under central command and not consumer driven, had constituted a more or less viable kind of systemic alternative for the western European left.

Its disappearance, therefore, specifically of the emphasis on worker solidarity that had dominated its ideological makeup, meant the loss of a token ideal for the western left as well as of a way of life and an ideological life-world for the workers in the east.

Both east and west, the European “first world” and the central European “second world,” therefore, had reason to reflect on its demise and have been doing so through nostalgia, mourning, melancholy, or disavowal.
Scribner investigates how the artistic intelligentsia on both sides of the divide deals with the new historical facts and their emotional expressions.

Scribner uses the term “second world” somewhat idiosyncratically as “the moment when the promise of solidarity manifested itself among the men and women who labored together on the factory floor.”(Ibid., 3-4.)

She understands it as a phase in the history of industrial, and notably cultural, development that is – or was – common to both western capitalism and eastern socialism.

In this conceptualization, the “second world” can be understood as an intellectual and emotional remnant in the western consciousness, a cultural left-over that the larger economic development from an industrial to postindustrial mode left behind, whereas in Eastern Europe it largely still was the “real existing” reality.

The concept of the “second world” is the linchpin that connects Scribner’s enterprise of analogizing trends in both Western and Eastern European aesthetic production, addressing the demise of workers’ solidarity and cultural commonality.

Chapter 1 deals with “The Collective” and emphasizes the role of archives and museums in the preservation of history and collective memory.

Scribner discusses the importance of collecting the everyday artifacts and consumer products of communist societies, exemplified in East Germany, and describes the Kita-Museum in Oranienburg and the Open Depot in Eisenhüttenstadt.

While these projects reflect on the collective experience of people under communism, it is an experience that only truly emerges as unifying and “collective” post factum, after the system that produced it and within which the objects circulated, disappears.
The mood surrounding these collections is thus a priori nostalgic, mournful, or melancholic, as the solidarity that potentially inhered in them is revealed as being always already lost.

But since these collections now reside within the context of contemporary first-world material culture, their commemoration of the “second world’s” collective experience through its poor consumer products and shoddy material culture inevitably invokes feelings of collective suffering, repression, despair, apathy, and most importantly, a shared political fate.

This is why questions could be raised as to how collective shame figures here, or how elements of acceptance and rejection within socialist cultural consciousness interact with each other.

Is there any tension between the public and the private that these exhibits try to convey?

Do they provide a reinterpretation of the collective cultural-historical memory for the public that may view them either as nostalgic or critical or both?

These readers’ hope for an evaluation of the collective experience of people under Soviet socialism is, unfortunately, not fulfilled.

Contrary to what Beuys and Heiner Müller think (and Scribner seems to support), the material leftovers from the “second world” do not hold much subversive energy.

If these exhibits fail to point this out, it is made unmistakably clear in the booming market for socialist kitsch: the sublation of a once-oppositional material life-world into the very mechanism of supply and demand of the “first world.”

The purchase of the light blue Trabi by Ariane’s boyfriend Rainer, at which she only rolls her eyes, is a case in point (Good Bye, Lenin! 2003; dir. Becker).

A problem with Scribner’s account is that she does not distinguish between “the collective,” ideally a voluntarily cooperating body of individuals, and “collectivism,” the real-existing ideological enforcement mechanism to achieve the former.

Unlike the collective, which is non-oppositional by nature, “Solidarity” – the topic of Scribner’s second chapter as well as its title – is a form of resistance to political or economic collectivist pressures.

In the Soviet socialist world, workers’ solidarity manifested itself most vividly in the example of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, in 1980.

The Gdansk Solidarity workers’ movement against the socialist command economy and the communist political elite was unique in the “second world,” and Scribner fails both to highlight this uniqueness and to emphasize its significance in Wajda’s films analyzed in this chapter.

While Scribner is long on the faltering of Wajda’s artistic method and political vision, she is short on both an elaboration and understanding of the nature of socialism in the “second world,” which differs considerably from its counterpart in the “first world.”

Soviet socialism is theoretically non-exploitative and based on the nationalization of the means of production and egalitarianism.

Its economy is managed by the state and encourages cooperation rather than competition in the work process.

Thus the development of “second world” societies was propelled not by economic interests but by a common ideology and the utopian goal of building a happy future for all.

As the utopian myth disintegrated, forces of resistance began to surface, directed above all against the totalitarian political rule.

Scribner writes that Solidarity “ushered Poland into the postindustrial era.”(Ibid., 16.)

This may well be so, but Scribner overlooks Solidarity’s push for democracy, openness, and political self-expression still well within the socialist system. This is precisely what Wajda’s films try to convey.

In Man of Marble, Wajda’s interest is in Agnieszka’s struggle for creative and political expression and her rebellion against the reality fabricated through the instruments of socialist realism.

Scribner sees the central issue of the film in Wajda’s departure from Solidarity’s political struggle in order to follow an oedipal narrative in the private lives of his characters, thereby creating a mood of mourning over the demise of communist solidarity ahead of its time.

Nevertheless, the critique of the socialist realist ideal of social engineering and its fictional nature is still very much at the center of Man of Marble.

Curiously, Scribner ignores the poignant museum scene where “history,” in the shape of monumental sculptures of Stakhanovite workers, has been relegated to the basement once it became politically outdated.

Man of Marble demonstrates how the myth of the happy workers’ life under Soviet socialism was always a cultural construct, created through officially approved films, sculptures, paintings, and other media that Agnieszka discovers during her work on Birkut’s story – the same media that Scribner now draws on for expressions (nostalgic, mournful, and otherwise), following the disappearance of this system.

Agnieszka’s drive to “deconstruct” the socialist realist myth of heroism and the collective of the working class is synonymous with her search for truth in artistic representation – which she is denied in the movie’s closing.

While continuing to focus on the theme of the workers’ resistance to Soviet socialism in Man of Iron, Wajda again centers his epic on questions of artistic and political expression.

The main character, Winkel, undergoes a moral test when he has to choose between remaining a hack documentary moviemaker and becoming a rebel against the communist myth.

Solidarity’s struggle for economic and political freedom in Man of Iron persuades him to follow the second route.

Solidarity thus emerges only when people begin to challenge the absolute authority of the Communist Party.

Wajda’s two films, like the Solidarity movement itself, signify above all a struggle for democracy that will lead beyond the Soviet socialist system.

It is logical that the movement falters when the system within which it was formed collapses but for different reasons than Scribner implies.

Scribner is right that Solidarity (the movement) takes communism “at its word” (reiterating demands that the party has already agreed to); but it is equally important to see that “collectivism” and “solidarity,” although intended and used as quasi-synonymous terms in the Soviet socialist system are, in fact, opposites.

Solidarity (the movement) reveals this. But it remains the exception even within the Soviet bloc. Solidarity (the political concept) was of a different and insufficient kind in the GDR in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968; significantly, Scribner omits these events entirely from her discussion.

By aestheticizing Wajda’s films, Scribers de-politicizes them.

Chapters 3 and 4, “Nostalgia” and “Mourning,” focus on western art work, the former notably on Tony Harrison and Mark Hermann’s films “Prometheus” (1998) and “Brassed Off” (1996), John Berger’s novels, and Leslie Kaplan’s poem “L’ excès – l’usine” (1982); the latter has Rachel Whiteread’s work, especially “House” (1993-94) at the center.

Scribner’s analyses in these two chapters seem less problematic, as the western artwork is embedded in the traditions of deconstruction, defamiliarization, reframing, etc. that have dominated “first-world” art for more than thirty years .

Nevertheless, within these thirty years fall the Thatcher economic reforms, the large-scale dismantling of the British labor traditions, and the move into the post-industrial age.

“Brassed Off” addresses these themes, but here again it is hard to see how nostalgia is appropriated subversively,(Ibid., 77.) as the miners-turned-musicians win a national brass band competition.

They still face certain unemployment. This is a similar feel-good ending as is provided in “The Full Monty” (1997; dir. Peter Cattaneo).

Regarding music, Scriber writes that British filmmakers and writers concerned with socialist issues (Berger, Kaplan, and Harrison) use “musical matter to make their own points about the crisis in socialism” and thus show how music “propels both the workers’ predicament and their potentials to the margins of history.”(Ibid., 80, 81.)

This review suggest a different interpretation: music accompanies the (second-world industrial) workers on their way to the dust heap of history, as in a dirge.

This interpretation reads the use of the brass band, the traditional and ostentatious musical form of public and political display as irony.

The fact that the workers themselves have to strike up the band only adds insult to injury.

It is different in the former communist societies, where public music had a near-sacral function and became a part of the new Soviet ritual.

Soviet composers produced a musical culture for the masses that nurtured many generations. This culture was to instill the spirit of patriotism, collectivism, internationalism, pride in the socialist construction, and other virtues of the new Soviet world.

Soviet songs celebrated a collective aesthetic experience under communism, and after the “second world” collapsed and western popular culture products began flooding in, many of these songs survived not only in the nostalgic cultural consciousness of large numbers of people, but also in post-Soviet cinema and the media.

Soviet songs figure, for example, as a part of East German “Ostalgie” in the recent European blockbuster, Good Bye, Lenin! and a great number of post-Soviet Russian films, such as Burnt by the Sun (1994; dir. Nikita Mikhalkov), and Moscow Parade (1992; dir. Ivan Dykhovichnyj).

Also interwoven into Chapter 3 is a brief discussion of the “woman question” in the artistic work of the western left.

It provides an example of one of the key problems underlying much of Scribner’s study, namely her downplaying of the categorical incommensurability of this western left ideal and its real-existing socialist counterpart.

Every issue, from socialism itself to solidarity, the collective, women’s roles, aesthetic freedom and, ultimately, memory and commemoration, functions differently within its respective “first world” and “second world” context.

Scribner’s book underestimates these differences that run considerably deeper than the structural a-synchronicity that operates in her account. Thus, her discussion of the “woman question” has little bearing on the “second world.”

Scribner’s conclusion that Western artistic works dealing with socialism present women as “muses of memory and mourning” and turn them into a symbol of return to the idealized, patriarchal world simply fails if applied to artistic works dealing with the “woman question” in Soviet socialism.(Ibid., 85.)

Parody of gender equality and the position of women under socialism permeate most artistic works created within the “second world” and in post-Soviet societies.

Even in Man of Marble, Birkut’s “model” socialist wife is a failed product of social engineering.

Initially presented to the Polish nation as an ideal of the “new” woman to emulate, she, like the system that created and nurtured her, turns into a corrupted, insensitive, and materialistic anti-heroine whose life and habits are incompatible with the socialist project.

If nostalgia for the position of women is present anywhere in the “second world,” it is for the woman that existed only in the dreams of social utopians.

Chapter 4, “Mourning,” focuses on Rachel Whiteread’s work, especially her “House” (1993-94), against a theoretical background of Freud (“Mourning and Melancholia”), Lacan, and Negt and Kluge. In itself a cohesive and convincing discussion of Whiteread, the chapter seems to connect only tenuously with the broader working class issues of the rest of the study.

The inside-out casts of Whiteread’s work, emphasizing the interface of the public and the private, doubtless speak to a key aspect of public mourning, but with implications that go far beyond workers’ solidarity or class issues.

“Melancholia,” title and theme of Chapter 5, concludes the Freudian outline and applies it to the post-communist era, exemplified predominantly in the German context.

It describes the general sense that something has been lost in the collapse of the Eastern life-world but emphasizes people’s inability to say exactly what was lost.

Among other cultural productions, Scribner discusses Beuys’s installation “Wirtschaftswelten” (1980), a collection of ordinary GDR consumer goods.

The overnight disappearance of just such products from the shelves of GDR stores is a topic also addressed in “Good Bye, Lenin!” thematizing the near-instantaneous transition from everyday reality to collective memory.

In Beuys’s case, however, as Scribner rightly points out, the display of the shoddy and gently decaying boxes or packets of GDR groceries amounts only to “false souvenirs” (121), as the objects never formed part of the artist’s life-world.

For Easterners, however, the experience may well vacillate between melancholia and nostalgia, “Heimweh” in German (nostos & algia), precisely the sense of a loss of “home,” that is, of something both visceral yet hard to locate and to name once it has disappeared.

Chapter 6 is in its core a convincing rereading of Christa Wolf’s work. Seen from the end – not of Wolf’s writing, we hope, but of communism and the socio-political environment in which that work was written and to which it responded – Scribner is right to say that Wolf’s work after 1989 was inevitably “bound up with the task of writing a requiem for communism.”(Ibid., 153.)

Despite a broad theoretical background, whose problem is that it offers too many foci instead of a unifying framework, and despite concepts that require rather more in-depth discussion and detailing than Scribner provides in the scope of a rather slim book, her study proposes a fresh and very timely look at the ways artistic and literary works reflect on socialism and its failure.

Taken as the start of an emerging discussion rather than its last word, the book outlines a broad intellectual territory to be covered, a new direction in the discourse on (collective) memory and its subdivisions.

Some important and highly relevant research on art under communism (and after) is already under way (although not mentioned by Scribner), produced by such scholars as, for example, Boris Groys, Helena Goscilo, Mark Lipovetsky, Vyatcheslav Kuritsyn, Nancy Condee, Mikhail Epstein, Katerina Clark, and Richard Taylor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *