Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Richard Wright

Taking a break from Soviet history, or so I thought, I recently completed Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy. The book, rich in dialogue and descriptive details and told from the unwavering perspective of a bewildered juvenile, begins with a brilliant and compelling examination of his early years in the Deep South. Growing up in and around Jackson, Mississippi, Wright suffered enormously from a culture of  economic inequality, systematic violence, and psychological terror.  Life in Jackson during the 1920s was extremely difficult.  African-Americans were denied access to almost every basic human right, including meaningful employment, reasonable levels of health care and education, and even the ability to consistently put food on the table.  The Southern culture of terror infected African-American family life, and helped to turn Wright's immediate family, and many of his friends, into co-conspirators.  Wright's sophisticated analysis of white racism is withering.  Under the constant threat of white intimidation or retaliation, Wright's family members lived incomplete lives, engaging in domestic violence, petty crime, and frenzied religious experience. Wright himself grew up hungry, physically abused, undereducated, and fearful of being hurt or killed by defenders of white privilege.

Incredibly, Richard Wright escaped the conditions to which he was born.  His courage, moral genius, work ethic, and budding literary talent helped him to move from the Deep South, first to Memphis, and ultimately to Chicago.  In Chicago, Wright's story perhaps inevitably merged with the subject of this blog, namely world communism.  The second half of Black Boy traces Wright's involvement with Chicago's communist movement.  In Chicago, Wright became heavily involved with Communist, or Communist-inspired cultural and political clubs.  Wright's fascination with Communism is instructive. Although Black Boy's literary talent is perhaps best illustrated by his depiction of his early life in Mississippi, the two halves of the book work together to explain something vital about American and indeed global history.  And that is that Wright found hope in Communism as a result of America's complete moral failure in the area of race relations.  Why did so many black Chicagoans worship the name of Lenin?  Clearly, their general religiosity didn't make this a natural alliance.  Still, America's Jim Crow laws made African-Americans look seriously at any leader who promised to break down barriers of racial as well as class exploitation.

Wright ultimately revolted against some of Communism's worst excesses.  He was appalled, for instance, by the Party's political witch hunts against alleged Trotskyites.  Yet Wright's ambivalence about the Communist Party's peculiar methodology should be set again the writer's interest in the Party's noble goal.  Abrham Terz (a.k.a., Andrei Sinyavsky), the author of a treatise on Socialist Realism, reminds us of just how appealing that goal could be.  For Tertz, Communism offered people the most glorious vision imaginable, better than anything Westerners had invented since the rise of Christianity.  Communism promised utopia, and claimed to make sense of everything, including America's history of racial oppression.

The link between African-American aspirations and Soviet promises is an interesting one, deserving of much fuller exploration.  Only recently, I noted that Koestler met up with one African-American intellectual in the heart of Soviet Asia during the 1930s.  Others have described Robeson's infatuation with the Soviet Union and its constitutional "guarantees" for racial equality.  But the links between African-American intellectual currents and Soviet ones are not simple.  Ironically, in Black Boy, Wright attributes Communist treachery in Chicago to the lessons that the world Communist Party had learned under the Russian tsars.  And of course his most famous novel, Native Son, seems to have been inspired by Dostoevsky's pre-revolutionary--even anti-revolutionary, novel, Crime and Punishment.

Socialist Realism

Some quotes from Abram Tertz's On Socialist Realism.

"Socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism.  It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development."  (Tertz cites the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, 1934)

"A poet not only writes poems but helps, in his own way, to build Communism..."

"Our art, like our culture and our soviety, is teleological through and through."

"Aimless rivers become arteries of communication.  Aimless trees become paper filled with destiny."

"The modern mind cannot imagine anything more beautiful and splendid than the Communist ideal."

"As Lenin promised, we will make toilets out of pure gold..."

"An iron necessity and a strict hierarchical order harnessed the flow of centuries."

"The man who received a Marxist education knows the meaning of both past and future."

"It is a long time since men had such an exact knowledge of the meaning of the world's destiny--not since the Middle Ages most likely."

" that not one drop of blood be shed any more, we killed and killed and killed."

"Yes, we live in Communism.  It resembles our aspirations about as much as the Middle Ages resembled Christ, modern Western man resembles the free superman, and man resembles God.  But all the same, there is some resemblance, isn't there?"