Studies on Socialist Realism

The Polish View

by Anna Artwińska (Volume editor) Bartłomiej Starnawski (Volume editor) Grzegorz Wołowiec (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 471 Pages


This anthology presents a selection of texts on Polish socialist realist literature, written from the early 1980s to date. They depict a comprehensive picture of this literary phenomenon: starting from its holistic interpretations, through detailed analyses of the poetics of literary and political texts and a presentation of specific, also untypical embodiments of this artistic doctrine, to descriptions of the functioning of the institutions of literary life under socialist realism. All the texts in this anthology share a historically and culturally determined general methodological perspective, representing a combination of the Polish version of structuralism in literary studies – on the descriptive plane – with the anti-communist attitude on the plane of evaluation of presented phenomena.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Anna Artwińska, Bartłomiej Starnawski & Grzegorz Wołowiec - Introduction: Socialist Realism in Polish Literary Research
  • Anna Artwińska, Bartłomiej Starnawski & Grzegorz Wołowiec - ‘Fluctuat nec mergitur…’ On Socialist Realism in Meta-Discursive Perspective
  • 1. What Was Socialist Realism?
  • Michał Głowiński - Realism and Demagoguery
  • Zdzisław Łapiński - How to Co-Exist with Socialist Realism?
  • Janusz Sławiński - A ‘New Type’ of Literary Criticism in the Stalinist Period
  • Zbigniew Jarosiński - Literature as Power
  • Leszek Szaruga - The Literary Canon of Polish Socialist Realism
  • 2. The Immanent Poetics of Socialist Realism
  • Michał Głowiński - ‘Don’t Let the Past Run Wild’: The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course as Mythical Narrative
  • Jerzy Smulski - The Literature of Socialist Realism: Selected Genological Issues
  • Wojciech Tomasik - Newspeak: Style as Language
  • Wojciech Tomasik - Literary Clichés in Polish Tendentious Novel 1949–1955
  • Dariusz Śnieżko - The 20th-Century Panegyric Situation
  • Grzegorz Wołowiec - The Ambiguous Charm of Self-Criticism
  • 3. Socialist Realism – Practices and Variants
  • Edward Balcerzan - Socialist Realism – Subversions and Deviations
  • Jerzy Smulski - Variance in the Socialist Realist Literary Text as a Scholarly Issue: Thoughts on Examples from Russian and Polish Literary Studies
  • Anna Zarzycka - Wisława Szymborska as an Author of Socialist Realist Poems
  • Tadeusz Kłak - Scenes from the Life of a Poet: Tadeusz Różewicz’s Adventures with Socialist Realist Criticism
  • Daria Mazur - PAX and Socialist Realism: A Marriage of Convenience?
  • 4. Institutions of Control: Literature Studies, Censorship, Literary Criticism
  • Anna Artwińska - Two Left Shoes: ‘The Marxist Breakthrough’ in Poland and Its Context
  • John M. Bates - Censorship in the Stalinist Era
  • Stefan Zabierowski - Melania Kierczyńska: The Socialist Realist Critic
  • In Lieu of a Conclusion
  • Wojciech Tomasik - Literature Without Literariness: On Socialist Realist Literature and Research
  • List of Contributors
  • List of Polish Editions
  • Index

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Anna Artwińska, Bartłomiej Starnawski & Grzegorz Wołowiec

Introduction: Socialist Realism in Polish Literary Research

The texts contained in this anthology, published in Poland from the early 1980s, present the phenomenon of socialist realism in statu nascendi in the historical perspective. Together, they amalgamate into the qualitatively specific ‘Polish perspective’ on socialist realism, as portended by the title, and at the same time clarify what is specific in this culturally determined approach. We may venture to state that the theoretical bases of socialist realism in Poland were most thoroughly explored not ex ante, but rather ex post.

The necessity of selecting from an enormous amount of bibliographic material compelled us to reduce the number of texts and to forgo chronological order. This order in and of itself would have been an interesting topic for specialists who avail themselves of the tools of broadly understood comparative studies, discourse analysis or history of literary criticism (for instance, as an example of the critical reception of Stalinist era in one of the former countries of the ‘Eastern Bloc’). Instead, we adopted the criterion of content-based representativeness. For this reason, the texts in this anthology are presented by subject matter and the issues discussed have been reduced exclusively to those taken up by literary studies, and so focusing on literary language, poetics, literary communication and institutions of literary life.

Besides those more or less signal references to sub-disciplinary or interdisciplinary areas which proved either obvious or indispensable to the humanistic discourse, this volume does not cover topics characteristic of drama studies, film studies, journalism, art history, aesthetics or philosophy of the Stalinist period, which all have been explored elsewhere. The material we have collected does not exhaust even the problem tropes of socialism/Stalinism studied over the course of the past neigh-on thirty years, and still preoccupying Polish literary studies nowadays. This publication, therefore, should be treated as a brief outline of the issues it presents, devoid of the ambition of offering a holistic, canonical or final exploration of the topic. Our offer, then, is a sort of encouragement for readers to continue their investigation of the topic and to scrutinize its literary studies aspect, but also, to the broadest extent possible, its cultural aspect.

The anthology has been divided into four parts, grouping texts in accordance with the issues they explore, that is: ← 9 | 10 →

1. What Was Socialist Realism?

2. The Immanent Poetics of Socialist Realism

3. Socialist Realism – Practices and Variants

4. Institutions of Control: Literary Studies, Censorship, Literary Criticism

Part one, whose title makes an obvious reference to the ‘analytical lampoon’ by Andrei Donatovitch Sinyavsky, largely focuses on classic texts which, with the benefit of hindsight, we could indicate as the ‘founding’ texts for the reflections on Polish socialist realism and which attempt to provide an answer to the general question of what socialist realism was and what functions it fulfilled, both as a creative method and as a type of an ‘aesthetic’ political doctrine. Answers to these questions are formulated as side notes to considerations over aesthetic traditions of socialist realism, the rules of literary life under Stalinism, the function of literary criticism or the procedures of shaping the new literary canon.

Part two, The Immanent Poetics of Socialist Realism, groups articles whose main objective was to introduce the general rules and mechanisms pertaining to writing socialist realist literature (especially production literature), for which the obvious framework was normative poetics with its specifically understood overarching principle of mimeticism. This principle was understood as imitation, translation and multiplication of the discursive matrix of Stalinism inferred to be its political language. Each text in this part scrutinizes this phenomenon of interference and of the coupling of the literary code with the rhetorical code of official language, superior to it. One valuable feature of these texts, mostly printed in late 1980s and early 1990s, is their consistent typological orientation, originating from the structuralist tradition of literary studies.

And so, the systemic reconstruction of literature of the 1950s, performed in the course of an analysis of contemporary texts, takes on the shape of reflections over the nature of immanent poetics; of reflections which attempt to define the templates of literary utterances typical of socialist realism, and to define their attitude toward concrete literary embodiments. The inferential course of these explorations often leads to conclusions invaluable to meta-discursive studies, principally in the sense that they pertain not only to morphologic or stylistic features of the works created within the ‘current’ or ‘literary programme’ of socialist realism, but also touch upon the situation of an author-producer in the extensive – and so on many planes homogeneous – culture of socialist realism. Thus, the presented reflection relates not only to the models and their performance, but also to the ways in which they functioned in various external types of context: generational, institutional or the literary milieu. These contexts strongly influence the diverse types of narration and autonarration of that time. ← 10 | 11 →

Parts three and four are complementary and their main theme is the relationship between the individual author and the process of control, exercised with the use of various institutional tools which often had a significant impact on the final shape of literary work. They also opened up the way for the emergence of unique, hybrid genres in the literary space of socialist realism; in Poland it was the peculiar case of Catholic socialist realism.


Any reader attempting to approach the issue of socialist realism in literature of former Eastern Bloc countries in a professional manner should begin with Michał Głowiński’s essay Realism and Demagoguery, from the collection Ritual and Demagoguery. Thirteen Sketches on Degraded Art, where the critic performs a systemic analysis of Stalinist discourse (especially as a complex of totalitarian representations in aesthetics) from the perspective of communication-oriented structuralism. Głowiński discusses the mechanisms of the transformation of socialist realism, normatively defined as per the Soviet model, with its overarching propaganda function. He is particularly interested in exploring the influence of 19th-century realist literature on the doctrine of socialist realism. He points to their shared programme premises, namely mimeticism (in essence in relation to a specific ideological discourse), an authoritative, evaluating commentary and the ‘rule of concealed literariness’, which was to give the impression that the narrated reality was an analogon of reality as such. Głowiński is of the opinion that the concept of ‘realism’ thus laid down for socialist literature, which precisely demarcates the conditions for epic expressions, by far exceeds the threshold of mimeticism, in the direction of what we would have to call constructivism, creating a vision of a fictional world, bearing a heavy axiological load, as the true reality.

In his now classic article How to Co-Exist with Socialist Realism? Zdzisław Łapiński undertakes the task of reconstructing the social function of socialist realism. His reflections are twofold: inductive, and so focusing on analytical examples and leading to general conclusions on the process of building a piece of text with prefabricated significant elements within socialist realism, and deductive-nomological, which leads to a recognition of the system of ideological representations of literary creativeness as immanent elements of the superstructure of Stalinist discourse, in which literature of socialist realism functioned as a channel for educative contents, a tool of specifically understood social pedagogy. Owing to this, Łapiński’s attention focuses on the typology of themes, motives and codified devices of aesthetic expression, obligatory from the point of view of socialist realism as an ‘educationally’ functionalized creative method, and on their practical application. ← 11 | 12 → He poses the hypothesis that the main task of socialist realist literature was to undermine the existing system of relevant cultural values by forcing both the author and the reader to participate in the ritualized ‘act of collective profanation’. In this sense, states Łapiński, the teleology of socialist realism as a specific socio-discursive practice would consist in, generally speaking, paving the way for communism as such. The final conclusion of Łapiński’s article boils down to the assertion that socialist realism was an important element of communist constructivism, applied for the needs of – to use contemporary terminology – invented Stalinist tradition, whose main axis was the cult of (supra)personality.

In his text A ‘New Type’ of Literary Criticism in the Stalinist Period, which once exerted great influence on the scholars of socialist realism, Janusz Sławiński analyzes, with his typical eloquence and accuracy, the particularities of socialist realist literary criticism in its pragmatic dimension, both against the background of the entire literary circuit and from the perspective of general discourse – above all as part of the discourse of Stalinist authorities. He treats it as a specialized institution devoid of any personal (individual) features, itself subject to supervision; as one of many institutions characteristic of the totalitarian regimes, subjugated to the language of the Party and designed for the reproduction of the ideological system of representations. The Stalinist system of literary communication, initiated at the 1949 Congress of the Polish Writers’ Union in Szczecin, was considered by Sławiński as being determined by a triad of fundamental features: ‘the imperative of unanimity’, ‘the imperative of being secondary’ and ‘the imperative of doctrinal compliance’. In Stalinism, communicational pluralism becomes a negative value, both on the plane of pragmatic and non-pragmatic activities. This leads to the uniformization of the discourse of literary criticism, to the standardization of its style, motives, topoi, themes or even argumentative structures. The Soviet model of aesthetic and literary criticism, growing since the 1930s, becomes the sole valid model of literary criticism. Polish literary criticism thus takes on the only possible form of ‘provincial’ (today we would call it ‘colonial’) discourse, based on the simple relationship of the centre and the outposts. The doctrine of socialist realism is, in Sławiński’s view, primarily a mechanism of control over creative circles and not a creative method in the strict sense. He sees it, in essence, as a ‘null character’, devoid of any meaningful information, despite the numerous programme postulates that constituted it and that changed over time. He understands it mainly as a practical tool of exercising discipline, as well as workshop and ideological flexibility of authors, as a gauge of political subordination of an influential professional group. Within this meaning, socialist realism is one of the mechanisms of totalitarian paideia, applied synergically to citizens on various planes. ← 12 | 13 →

Zbigniew Jarosiński’s essay Literature as Power, based on various types of documentary materials, is an attempt at a reconstruction of the programme of socialist realism as propagated in the press, especially in publicistic pieces. The author isolated from his research material a system of beliefs about literature formulated by the Stalinist transformation of culture (its politicization), their argumentative encasing within the discourse and the fundamental components of this narration, grouping these beliefs in clusters of recurring motifs: a) of increased readership and demand for literature in the socialist system as a historical fact; b) of literature as a sort of service to the nation; c) of cultural revolution having disseminated aesthetics on a class-wide scale; d) of social advancement being tantamount to cultural advancement; e) of socialist literature shaping consciousness (a positively assessed educational function) and thus of its contribution to the creation ‘of a new man’ (it is then obliged to interfere with the social reality or with the workplace environment); g) of socialist creative act being intimately connected to the category of truth as seen by Stalinists (and in relation to it, it is subject to evaluation by way of gradable ‘correctness’ of contents, forms and artistic expression), while the author is fully responsible for the process of social reception. As a side note to his considerations, Jarosiński proposes an interesting hypothesis that the purpose of a re-evaluated (‘progressive’) cultural tradition under socialist realism was to serve the law-makers of socialist realism in their struggle against 20th-century avant-garde ideas more than it was to nationalize the literature of the Stalinist era in line with the postulate that it should be ‘national in form, socialist in contents’.

The last of the texts in part one, written by Leszek Szaruga (The Literary Canon of Polish Socialist Realism), proposes that we read the canon of the history of Polish literature created in the politically involved literary studies of the 1950s as a sort of functional structure of didactic and persuasive nature. The principal objective of such an exercise, as the research position should be interpreted, was to historicize the literature of socialist realism, which was to fortify the social belief that this movement, first of all, fitted in the genetic make-up of the national cultural tradition and second, that it was its evolutionary outcome, that the transformations within the native artistic forms and in the historical consciousness somehow naturally gravitated toward the ‘progressive’ vision of social relations deposited in the idea of socialism and, more precisely, in the Leninist-Stalinist version of Marxism. One interesting context for these broadly understood ‘historical re-interpretations’ (especially of the tradition of 19th-century literature, Romanticism and Positivism) is the authentic tradition of realism in literature of Polish leftist circles, reconstructed in Szaruga’s essay and developing from the end of the 19th century up until the interbellum of the 20th century (for example, the Przedmieście (Suburbs) group). ← 13 | 14 → Echoes of this tradition reverberated even in the tumultuous post-war discussions held on the pages of Kuźnica (The Forge) and Odrodzenie (Rebirth) weeklies, in the end thwarted in 1949 by the official inauguration of socialist realism.


One of the first and, in a sense, ‘founding’ texts of scholarship on Stalinist rhetoric conducted within the critical discourse analysis was Michał Głowiński’s Don’t Let the Past Run Wild. ‘History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course’ as a Mythical Short Story, an analysis of one of the seminal works of communism. Using tools from the field of, for example, narratology and textology research, Głowiński dissects this text as primarily a totalitarian short story, isolating out its individual genre features and its specific poetics. In this manner, the Short Course is understood as a text placed in a meta-historical perspective, treated as a sort of a model totalitarian mould and cornerstone of communist newspeak, especially on the plane of codified meanings (updated through persuasive metaphorization and eristic argumentation), but also in the basic dimension of language, that is of vocabulary and phraseology gravitating toward idiomatic forms. Głowiński points out that the ‘history of communism’ expounded in the Short Course fits right into the processes and strategies typical for weaving a plot: a chronicle type of narration, a falsified epitome (an abstract of a larger work, in this case: an apocryph, as the 1938 edition was the only one) and, antithetically – a mythical narration of a varying status and functions: of an exemplary, hagiographic, quasi-sacral tale. The last model seems most significant, as the stylization of the Short Course to resemble a historical narration (or a persiflage thereof) is merely a functional veil, while its core and final objective is to build the myth of communist genesis, out of which emerges a new socio-political and axiological order. A selective approach to historical facts allows for cloaking the mythical narration in a guise of likelihood yet, as the critic states, the individual elements which make up this myth may be isolated from the text if it is treated as a specific type of a fictional act. From the point of view of poetics this tale, understood as an epic form, is governed by the laws and logic typical of literature. The ‘depicted world’ of the Short Course, which avails itself of historical facts as a pretext, satisfies all requirements of a sacral text, of the narration of a ‘holy book’, simultaneously revealing the purely artistic (artificial) character of this tale. Above all, it satisfies its two fundamental dimensions: the eschatological one, as old history comes to an end and the history of communism begins, and the anagogical one, where the idea of a new order in the wake of a revolution clarifies. All the events of the plot are subordinate to this system of meanings and determined by it, leading to the climax of narration, that is the victory of the Communist Party ← 14 | 15 → under Lenin’s leadership and finally, paving the way for the mythical heroization and sacral deification of Stalin.

Jerzy Smulski, in his text entitled The Literature of Socialist Realism. Selected Genological Issues, attempts to answer a question of importance to literary studies of socialist realism, especially within the perspective of considerations regarding genres and types, to wit: ‘Can the specificity of socialist realism be characterized in genological categories?’

The theoretical optics assumed by the researcher, in their basic foundations referring to the typical structuralist and meta-historical typological considerations, allow us to view socialist realism within a definition framework that is broader than before: as a sort of stage in the multidirectional fluctuation of the tradition of realism, understood as a weighty aesthetical ‘theorem’. Smulski also broaches the essential issue of the history of this current, especially in the 20th century, stating that it ‘functioned within the framework of a totalitarian culture (or, more generally: within the frameworks of a totalitarian sociopolitical formation)’ and thus constituted its main tool of persuasive auto-presentation. Ideologists, and later also theoreticians and literary critics, were primarily interested in the type of texts which would be capable of fictionalizing the communist doctrine, and so those which gravitated toward the epic convention and which were persuasively efficient in the contacts with the mass reader. Smulski’s analysis, which accounts for the immanent poetics of this type of narrative structures (production poetry, tendentious prose, borderline genres, such as reportage or essay) leads to the firmly formulated thesis that in socialist realism we in fact dealt with a type of formal staffage, in which the nominally and declaratively applied genological formulas (i.e. ode, ballad, hymn, lament) served merely as a pretextual modal frame of utterance, with ideological content superimposed in line with the expectations of ‘discourse disposers’. The use of this handy stylistic and compositional device allowed for (i.e. in the poetry of the 1950s) a false stratification into individual forms of style (high, medium, low) and at the same time elevated the calibre of the quality of contemporary literary production. Based on extensive reading of the Stalinist literature and related discourse, Smulski concludes that the basic typological criteria of the literature of this period should be above all thematic fields (grouping similar texts), operative for the retrospective description, while the criterion of division into genres, as particularly presentist, should be rejected altogether in historical recapitulations of this aesthetic current.

The criticism by Wojciech Tomasik deserves separate attention of researchers wishing to explore the phenomenon of socialist realism in Central and Eastern Europe. The two essays contained in part two of the anthology were originally published in the monograph Polish Tendentious Novel 1949–1955. Problems of Literary Persuasion (Warszawa, 1988). They take up the issue of correlations between the ← 15 | 16 → poetics of socialist realism in Polish prose after 1949 and ‘newspeak’ understood as a specific metalanguage of the Stalinist period. The author, as an heir to the tradition of communication-oriented structuralism and at the same time as a ‘second generation’ scholar of communism, undertakes a discursive and typological analysis of the tendentious novel, concurrently reviewing the rhetorical and persuasive techniques imbued in the literary communication of the fifties.

His first study, Newspeak: Style as Language, focuses on the issues of transparency of narrative prose of the time, on its inclination, both in the semantic and stylistic as well as in formal sense, toward publicist discourse. The tendentious novel, guided by the rule of widespread availability, in praxi loses the autonomy and individuality traditional in plot-based narratives, at the same time erasing the position of the author to the benefit of the collective ‘We’. Entirely subjected to the persuasive function, the socialist realist novel thus fulfils the model laid down in the official propaganda message; it becomes a literary interpretation of the Party language, its expiation; it constitutes an illustration of the axionormative order propagated in the Stalinist discourse, which redefines the historical past and profiles the desired network of social, political and customary relationships.

The ‘binary system of values’ or more broadly speaking, the dichotomy described by Tomasik, permeates all layers of a socialist realist piece: at the level of elements of the depicted world and of its time (old – new), of construction of the hero (us – them) and of actions (progressive – backwards). One symptomatic feature, owing to the influence of newspeak radiating onto the language of aesthetics, is the overuse of military vocabulary in collocations, metaphors, epithets and colloquialized ideological slogans directed toward the future; hence the typical semantic fields such as ‘battle for the man’, ‘battle for development’, ‘battle for the liberation of the proletariat’, ‘battle for the new rural areas’, etc. This must be viewed as a part of a holistic project of melioration and change within the area of antropologicum (the idea of a man ‘of a new type’, who is anticipated by the positive hero) and within the national imaginarium which in spe is classless and socialist ‘in its contents’.

The second text by Tomasik, Literary Clichés in Polish Tendentious novel 1949–1955, discusses issues which are complementary to his first study: the schematism of socialist realist prose, its attitude toward the novel genre and the reproductive and repetitive character of fictional narration in the first half of the 1950s. The issue of clichés compels us to revisit the questions on intersystemic intertextuality within the ‘self-sufficient’ circuit of ideological representations. Within the theoretical reflections in the field of discourse analysis, genology and historical poetics, the category of literary cliché emerges as a phenomenon of socialist realism that is typical and specific, which must be located poles apart from the category of mimeticism and ← 16 | 17 → laterally in relation to the phenomenon of stereotype (which requires internalization and natural consolidation with a community). The literature of socialist realism, highly conventionalized in terms of semantics, formal and compositional requirements, emerges in these musings as a (macro)strategy of repeated persuasive recapitulation, of mnemonic reiterations at the level of motif, theme, language (for example, by way of stabilization of epithets), of word structures or compositional devices, designed to be reused in other texts. Literary clichés, in short, both create and stabilize the field of tradition to which they refer. By alluding to other texts, they build a sort of community of identity of meanings. The repetitiveness of meanings and their systems fulfils a function that is as didactic as it is ritual. Both these applications pull in the direction of anonymity, as they are designed to arouse specific reactions in the anthropological sphere (e.g. they profile a given attitude towards work), to consolidate connotative impulses (e.g. to correctly recognize an enemy of the proletariat – for example on the basis of morphological features – but primarily through his ‘discursive behaviour’, both verbal and extra-verbal). Socialist realist literary clichés are strongly interlinked in the narratives of socialist realism, we could in fact say that they are mutually determined: a mimetic reference to the real world (whose typical signals are: recognizable space, urban architecture, real-life casual props, such as the brand of cigarettes, the texture of clothes or objects of everyday use that are absent from the post-war market) is a type of veil for the persuasive function in which the entire structure of the cliché is mediated.

Dariusz Śnieżko in The 20th-Century Panegyric Situation explores the panegyric of Stalinist Poland. He presents the historical panorama of the panegyric, a type of occasional poetry (Gebrauchslyrik), in Polish literature, and points out a number of fundamental characteristics of the socialist realist ‘panegyric situation’. Firstly, the hero is a persuasively bi-directional construct, that is directed both at the addressee of the laudation (captatio benevolentiae) and at the audience, the reader (devices consisting in heroization and/or mythicization of the hero, introduction of sublime elements into the depicted world). Secondly, there is the relationship between the author and the system of patronage. Thirdly, the ritualization of panegyric gestures, illustrated with laudatory works from two different periods of history: from before the war, written in praise of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, and from the post-war period, dedicated to the President of the People’s Republic of Poland, Bolesław Bierut. This aspect also relates to the plane of rhetoric devices applied in the laudation. Fourthly, the conventionalized position of the author, his transparency in the entire composition of the ‘laudation’. Fifthly, the time of the depicted world, which is each time geared toward the present, especially in its political aspect.

Similarly, Grzegorz Wołowiec in The Ambiguous Charm of Self-Criticism dissects the phenomenon of socialist realist self-criticism (announced publicly, in print) as a ← 17 | 18 → convention specific to Stalinist discourse. In his view, self-criticism is a hybrid genre, which fits in between the actio of the sophistic rhetoric (whose initiator, moderator, supervisor and final addressee were communist authorities) and the ritual formula of a quasi-sacral sort, with a defined script, storyline and hierarchical positioning of personae on the stage, as in typically liturgical genres. Wołowiec also points out the on the one hand symbolic and on the other hand pragmatic (in the illocutionary sense) dimension of these practices, marked by a semantic overlapping of literary and functional styles, between auto-da-fé and feudal homage. Together they make up a type of ‘self-critical’ structure of utterance, seemingly antithetic or paradoxical, yet understood and functional on the level of the institutional code, where it acquires the significance of ‘Party investiture’, a mark of the author’s accession to the communist establishment.


Edward Balcerzan is interested in poetry and the situation of the poet in Poland of the 1950s. He focuses on the influence of socialist realism on the poetic practice; specifically, he examines the methods and strategies employed by poets who tried to fulfil the programme of socialist realism. Since the doctrine failed to provide any codified aesthetic or poetological solutions, socialist realist poets were forced on the one hand to translate the expectations of literary critics into the language of poetry and on the other hand, to pursue artistic explorations and experiments. The attempts at developing poetic language which would be capable of expressing the socialist realist programme and, at the same time, of revealing the individual artistic preferences – which, of course, had to fit into the framework of the doctrine – are in Balcerzan’s opinion an important element of the creative practice of the fifties. Balcerzan isolated two main strategies of translating the programme of socialist realism into the language of poetry, which he dubs, in line with the military and political topoi prevailing under Stalinism, ‘subversions and deviations’. The first deviation consisted in the interception and arrangement of classicist poetry within socialist realist poetry (authors linked to Kuźnica) which, however, quickly became the target of attacks by literary critics who accused the classicizing poets of leaning toward idealism, anachronism and escapism from reality into the realm of cultural symbols. The second deviation, the so-called ‘Mayakovskyism’ positioned itself on the antipodes of classicizing socialist realist poetry. The point of departure was the poetics of Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, which was subjected to attempts of ‘nationalization’ so as to tailor it to the expectations of critics who postulated socialist realism in literature. Balcerzan discusses how these ‘deviations’ functioned in Polish culture of Stalinist times, pointing out in particular the incessant tensions ← 18 | 19 → between literary critics and creative practice. Next, he examines the idea of ‘poetic realism’ based on the example of Polish literary works written in isolation both from the classicist deviation and from Mayakovskyism, in order to present a ‘positive’ poetics of socialist realism, which is not a mere outcome of prohibitions and warnings.

In his article entitled Scenes from the Life of a Poet: Tadeusz Różewiczs Adventures with Socialist Realist Criticism, Tadeusz Kłak brings up two problems. Firstly, he shows how socialist realist critics in the fifties strove to win over all those authors who could be (potentially) helpful in putting forward the communist vision of the world and of literature. Secondly, he discusses the situation of a poet torn asunder between affirmation of communism as a political option and negation of communist directives and regulations in art. Kłak treats the case of Tadeusz Różewicz as a clear example which facilitates the understanding of mechanisms behind Polish culture of the Stalinist period and which, at the same time, reveals its paradoxes and internal contradictions. In analyzing the most important literary discussions around the works of the author of Anxiety in the fifties, Tadeusz Kłak accurately depicts the dilemmas of contemporary critics who struggled to unambiguously classify Różewicz’s poetry. He also points out the moves of the poet himself, who in his own way tried to meet the expectations of involved poetry. Kłak’s article puts a question mark over the opinions on a unilaterally propagandist and doctrinal attitude of contemporary criticism, operating within ‘black and white’ categories. It also offers a fresh look on the situation of authors under Stalinism who, as exemplified by Różewicz, although risking criticism and attacks, did not automatically shed their agency and poetic sensitivity.

The theoretical reflections of Jerzy Smulski in Variance in the Socialist Realist Literary Text as a Scholarly Issue: Thoughts on Examples from Russian and Polish Literary Studies focus on the phenomenon of variance in socialist realist texts, understood as a sort of intentional device of retroactive character that produces a new version of the text, different from the original one. Smulski directs his attention towards the scale of this practice in the literature of the Soviet Union, specific to the period of socialist realism (Fyodor Vasilyevich Gladkov’s Cement, brought up by Smulski as a telling example of such endeavours, had as many as forty ‘editions’), as well as in the Polish literature, primarily prose (e.g. Tadeusz Konwicki’s Władza (‘Power’)), either written under the banner of socialist realism or later included in and adjusted to it. These interferences were of both editorial and stylistic nature, leading to transformations of the composition and of the linguistic shape of texts. They also involved the semantic plane, that is the dimension regarding the ideological message, corrected in the subsequent editions under the influence of external political circumstances. The widespread scale of the phenomenon of fine-tuning literary works to the new political or ideological situation stemmed from the central position occupied by ← 19 | 20 → literature within the broadly understood Stalinist culture. Not only ideologists and politicians played an important role in this process of improving literary works, but also the official institutions of control over literary life and publishing circulation, that is the official critics, preventive censorship authorities and publishers. Their intervention in the final shape of literary texts resulted in the phenomenon of a ‘collective work’, specific to socialist realism and developed by way of joint efforts of the representatives of various instances of political and literary life under Stalinism.

Anna Zarzycka, in Wisława Szymborska as an Author of Socialist Realist Poems, which forms part of a monograph on the juvenilia (1945–1957) of the future Nobel laureate, focuses on the still relatively unexplored trope of socialist realism in Szymborska’s creative biography. Zarzycka observes that the leftist inclinations of the young poet, manifested in her epic and lyrical poetry, did not obliterate the aesthetic and literary value of her works. In emphasizing this fact, Zarzycka takes a polemical position as regards the time-honoured thesis, proliferated by literary studies, on the poet’s double debut – the first one under socialist realism and the second, ‘real’ one in 1957, after the de-Stalinization of Polish literature. Zarzycka advances the opinion that Szymborska proved herself an artistically independent, clearly defined poetic figure already in the early ’50s, which, by the way, had also been put forward by and usually met with approval of contemporary literary critics.

The text by Daria Mazur, entitled PAX and Socialist Realism: A Marriage of Convenience? is a brief overview of a phenomenon specific to Polish socialist realism, that is the Catholic interpretation of Stalinist literary doctrine (Catholic socialist realism), pursued in the first half of the 1950s by critics and writers connected to PAX, an organization of lay Catholics in political cooperation with the communist authorities in Poland. The author explores the political genesis of this milieu, its ideological profile, combining social radicalism with loyalty to the Catholic church, as well as the literary, uniquely hybrid manifestations of these two seemingly irreconcilable ideological attitudes.


Anna Artwińska, in her Two Left Shoes: ‘The Marxist Breakthrough’ in Poland and Its Context, attempts a preliminary investigation of the problem of ‘the Marxist breakthrough’ in Polish literary studies of the first half of the 1950s, so far a largely uncharted topic in historiographic research. She also revisits the issue of later (post-1956) representations and evaluations of this period, offered by the very participants of these events and by their external commentators. She points out certain aspects undermining the anti-communist image of this phenomenon cemented in the Polish collective memory as something imposed exclusively from the outside, ← 20 | 21 → devoid of own motivation and anchoring in the local tradition, and as lacking in any cognitive value. She brings up the diverse manners of understanding and application of the Marxist theory within Polish literary studies of the 1950s, as well as the internal dynamics of that period. She also stresses the role of historical and cultural context, which is both key for grasping those times and usually overlooked in the existing research on the history of Polish humanistic studies under communism. The Institute of Literary Research occupies a prominent place in the author’s considerations. The Institute was established in 1948 to revalue Polish literary research and after 1956 it became the target of sharp criticism for its scholarly and organizational activities.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Stalinism Culture of communism Revolutionary literature Totalitarian culture
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 471 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Artwińska (Volume editor) Bartłomiej Starnawski (Volume editor) Grzegorz Wołowiec (Volume editor)

Anna Artwińska is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the University of Hamburg. Her research interests include socialist realism, memory and post-memory of communism, post-colonial studies, as well as concepts of generation and genealogy in literature. Bartłomiej Starnawski is a historian of literature at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. In his research he looks at socialist realism and literature of the People’s Republic of Poland from the perspective of history and theory of literature. Grzegorz Wołowiec is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. He researches literature and literary life in the People’s Republic of Poland, both from the historiographic and from the meta-historical perspective.


Title: Studies on Socialist Realism