So far the emphasis on this blog has been on those examples of Socialist Realist art that I have encountered on various visits to Albania in the past few years – especially the ‘lapidars’ (public monuments and sculptures). One of the drivers for starting this project was the fear that due to both active political vandalism and simple lack of care many of these unique works of socialist art were likely to disappear in the near future and would be lost to posterity.
The Albanian Lapidar Survey of 2014 meant that, at least, those monuments that still existed and were identified at the time would be recorded in as much detail as possible, including a comprehensive photographic record of their condition in 2014. The fate of those lapidars has varied in the intervening years, some suffering further decay others suffering inappropriate (if at times well meaning) and destructive ‘renovation’.
With many of the lapidars I have visited I have attempted to carry out a deep reading of what they represent and have tried to put them in their historical context. I don’t even try to maintain that I have always got it right but in lieu of any other such record (much information about the more than 650 lapidars covered in the ALS investigation – and many other works of art, such as bas reliefs, mosaics, etc. – having been destroyed or lost in the chaotic years of the 1990s) I hope my efforts can help in reconstructing a comprehensive data base for the future. Although many have already been written about on this blog there are still many to follow.
Travelling quite extensively around the country I have encountered artistic elements of the socialist past that were outside the remit of the ALS. That includes the likes of the mosaics (Bestrove, Tirana Historical Museum and on the Bashkia in Ura Vajgurore – to name a few) and bas reliefs (for example, the Durres Tobacco Factory and Radio Kukesi) already mention as well as paintings (in the National Art Gallery in Tirana), statues (including the ‘Sculpture Park‘ behind the National Art Gallery and the 68 Girls of Fier), stand alone structures (such as the Party Emblem in Peshkopia) and murals (such as the Traditional Wedding Mural in the hotel restaurant also in Peshkopia), exhibits in museums and a number of other works that have (sometimes) miraculously survived the 30 years following the success of the counter-revolution.
By the time the Party of Labour of Albania had achieved victory over the fascist invaders in November 1944 the idea of Socialist Realist Art as something Socialist countries should encourage had become entrenched in the thinking of revolutionary Marxist-Leninists. I presented my interpretation of this when discussing art in Albania but the same arguments would suit the use of art in the other major Socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union and China.
I intend to look at Soviet Socialist Realist Art, initially, by reading the stories being told in the Metro stations, principally of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and Moscow.
When it comes to the People’s Republic of China there are already examples of the use of art in the struggle to establish Socialism in the pages of Chinese Literature. Various issues of that magazine are available from 1953 to 1981 (the final 5 years an example of how literature and art can be used to turn back Socialism in a similar way it was used to promote Socialism from 1949 till just after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976).
The Chinese approach to literature and art can also be gleaned from the works of the writer and cultural theorist Lu Hsun.
Here I present a slide show of a collection of posters from the last, full revolutionary year of the People’s Republic of China (1975) to give an idea of how Chinese poster art had developed to that date.
The British Museum is currently hosting a small exhibition under the title ‘The Currency of Communism’ – which is running until the 18th March 2018. It’s hardly a huge exhibition, barely more than a half a dozen (small) display cabinets in a room where you can swing a cat – but only just.
In such a tiny space you’re not going to get a lot but what is there is quite interesting in the sense that many of the notes are from countries where the construction of Socialist is no longer in vigour. But it does give the visitor a chance to see some of the images that have been used on coins and notes in the last hundred years – since the Great October Revolution in Russia in November 2017.
Although I haven’t mentioned coinage or notes in my discussions about Socialist Realist Art they are another area where the different socialist societies sought to present the values of collectivity and to promote labour as something to celebrate and honour.
As it mentions in this exhibition the images on the notes were part of the propaganda battle that all socialist societies have to wage against the insidiousness of the capitalist past in a particular country and the capitalist present in a hostile world.
But when the word ‘propaganda’ is used in most circumstances in Britain it’s always in a negative context. THEY, i.e., the enemy, use propaganda WE, the good guys in all this (although the country is constantly invading other countries and killing people in their millions) don’t stoop to such perfidy.
For some reason in Britain it is not accepted that having the head of a Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on all British coins and notes has nothing to do with the promotion of a monarchy. That having the face of a bloated, drunken, racist and class warrior for his class – the aristocracy – doesn’t also promote the values that he believed in to his core and carried out with total disregard to the harm he might cause to ordinary people both in this country and abroad. The values of the monarchy and Churchill are those of the perpetuation and promotion of a society of oppression and exploitation.
But then, as they don’t get challenged by enough people they can get away with their lies. That’s OK, they fight for their class the problem is that too few of us fight for our class. And, what’s worse in some respects, don’t even know their own history to be able to challenge the idea that the aristocracy are parasites on the body politic and their destruction is necessary for our freedom.
Back to the currency.
There were a few things of interest in the handful (literally) of notes and coins on display.
One was the innovative manner in the manner in which all kinds of materials were used as a stop-gap when the old currency became useless after a revolution. You can’t allow the old currency to remain in circulation as the old rich will be able to remain rich. One example following the February Revolution in Russia was of a small sheet of postage stamps over printed with the declaration of the abdication of the Tsar. Other examples were simple printed pieces of paper that gained their value from the trust that people placed in them or the over stamping of coins with a hammer and sickle – which soon became the symbol of Soviet Communism and an integral part of the coat of arms of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.
When financial stability had been achieved the new states started to produce notes as are recognised throughout the world. Now they used the skill of proletarian artists and engravers to reproduce the story of the building of Socialism as was seen in art galleries throughout the socialist world as well as in that most extensive of all Socialist Realist Art galleries – the Metro systems, primarily Moscow but also Leningrad and other major cities, in the Soviet Union.
But what grated with this exhibition was the ignorance of the curator/s and their total lack of understanding of what Communism is all about. Obviously they haven’t read any Mao Tse-tung as they write (giving the impression of authority – after all it’s the British Museum) about something they know absolutely nothing.
Not only do they not know anything about the ideology of Marxism-Leninism (the overriding theory that has been behind all the socialist revolutions of the last hundred years and will be the ideology of those revolutions to happen in the future) they know nothing of history.
The curators state: ‘Communism proposes that money has no role in a utopian society. To date though, no communist state has successfully removed money from its economy.’ Here they create a false premise just so that they can then attack it and add to the propaganda battle of capitalism against those who aim to construct a better society free from oppression and exploitation.
The existence of a Communist Party as the ruling party in any particular country doesn’t mean that the country has achieved the ultimate aim of the establishment of Communism.
No Marxist-Leninist of the 20th century ever argued that Communism had been established in any country. Socialism had been established, the first and necessary stage of Communism, but that would exist for an indeterminate time until the conditions for the establishment of Communism arose. And they were unlikely to arise when so much of the world was still under the yoke of capitalism and imperialism.
In the limited ‘explanation’ given in the text in this small room there was constant reference to the fact that many things that are paid for by money in capitalist societies (such as health, education, housing, leisure, transport and social services) are included as part of a worker’s social wage. However, this does not mean that ALL that people need in their daily existence in a Socialist society is there for people to take without some sort of cash transaction taking place.
It is true that the vestiges of the old order, that are demonstrated by the existence of money, means there are opportunities for the unscrupulous and corrupt to take advantage of that ‘weakness’ in Socialism and attempt to use that weakness for their personal benefit. Realising that the taking of State power was only the first act along the road to Communism and that all could be sabotaged by such rotten elements Stalin declared: ‘The Party becomes strong by purging itself of opportunist elements.’ For it was in the ruling party that such opportunists saw their best chance of success.
No Socialist society has existed for more than 46 years (in Albania) so even the best of Communists is more than likely to be tainted by the venom that has been bred into people’s attitudes over the millennia of various systems of exploitation and class differentiation. The construction of Socialism, aiming for Communism, is both a struggle to create the material level to satisfy the needs of the whole of the population but it is also a struggle of ideas to temper their desires to a level that the is sustainable for the whole of society.
Save for the Future
‘Consumerism’ that developed, principally after 1945, in the capitalist countries was a serious problem for the war damaged Socialist countries. An increasing number of ordinary working people were seen as being able to surround themselves by ‘luxuries’, a term used in the past for items that are now considered the norm. But this consumerism is, and has always been, fed by debt. It started out with Hire Purchase and is reaching its nadir at the moment with credit card debt where people are buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have and, in many cases, won’t ever have.
Perhaps the people in socialist societies were asked for too much of a sacrifice, working for the future without getting something over and above the necessities today. This idea is represented in the exhibition by the reproductions of posters which encouraged workers and collective peasants to save rather spend all they earned on goods for the present. This is one of the many aspects of the first period of Socialist construction that will need to be considered during the start of the second.
The opposite is the case in capitalist countries where all the State and capitalist propaganda is geared to encourage workers to live only for the now, only for consumerism. How else is it possible to explain the inane concept of ‘retail therapy’? All the debt is being pushed into the future, for later generations to deal with – which will almost certainly lead to a military conflict – as has been the solution so many times in the past.
Because money under capitalism leads to regular economic crisis. It creates the conditions for the innumerable ‘bubbles’ that have plagued capitalism from the start and which are growing in various aspects of present day society. Even staunch supporters of the capitalist system talk of ‘when’, not ‘if’, the crisis will occur when referring to the future.
Capitalism concerns itself only for gratification now and to maintain its control of society does all that it can to instil such a narrow-minded, short-term attitude in their populations. This can be seen in the manner that the system has cut a swathe through cultures, nature and the lives of countless millions of working people. They are prepared to destroy the world if it means they can accumulate more and more wealth, more ‘money’.
This is why all past Socialist societies have argued for the gradual diminution of the importance of money and its eventual abolition – but only when the conditions are right.
In the village of Nanjiecun, in central China, a small community of a few thousand have been able to reduce the amount of cash transactions but not all. But it’s a small, isolated community, an oasis in a vast ocean of capitalism, in China itself as well as the rest of the world. In such a situation it will never be anything more than an aberration, however admirable the effort might be.
Under conditions of Socialism the slogan is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his work. Money will cease to exist when the slogan, under conditions of Communism, is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. (‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Karl Marx, 1875.)
When that time arrives ‘intellectuals’ will work for the betterment of society in general and won’t be the self-important, self-congratulatory, self-aggrandising bunch of self-serving sycophants they are now. Is it a surprise they had a hard time in the past in those countries where the construction of Socialism was taking place?
This is probably the smallest exhibition the British Museum has ever presented but brings up some of the biggest questions.
After his death on 11th April 1985 Enver Hoxha was buried next to the Mother Albania statue in the Martyr’s Cemetery overlooking Tirana. However, the counter-revolution that took place in 1990 allowed his political enemies to take their revenge by denying him a place of honour in the country’s history and he was reburied in the main public cemetery of the city.
To get there take the bus to Kombinat, an orange and always crowded bus, from the top end of Rruga Kavajes, the road that leads away from Skënderbeu Square in a westerly direction. Cost of the fare is 40 leke.
Stay on the bus until it arrives at the terminus. This is the main square of Kombinat. During Socialism, in this square, standing atop a large plinth, was the statue of Joseph Stalin – which now stands in less grandeur behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana. Across the square from where the bus drops you is the entrance of the now abandoned and partially destroyed textile factory, which bore Stalin’s name and provided not only work for the vast majority of the population of Kombinat but also its name – kombinat means factory in Albanian.
Go back to the main road and follow the direction the bus had brought you, i.e., with Tirana at your back, and walk for about ten minutes to arrive at a narrow road that leads off the main road, slightly uphill, to the left. This junction is opposite a petrol station and there are flower shops as well as stone engravers workshops plainly visible. Continue along this road for a few minutes until it turns to the right and in less than 50 metres go through the gate on the left. There are always flower sellers on either side of this gate.
Once through the gates take the path to the left and then the first path, heading up hill, to the right. When you see a sign with ‘Parcela 6’ on your right you know you are getting close. Look for the back of the doubled-headed eagle symbol, ubiquitous throughout Albania, and that’s where Enver‘s remains currently reside. If you arrive at the same level as a second caged grave (presumably the relatives were afraid s/he would escape otherwise) you have gone too far.
It’s a modest grave, two in from the path, of red marble and the only inscription being his name and dates (1908-1985), surmounted by a small star. At the head there are two pillars which support a black metal, double-headed eagle. There are always flowers on the stone, a mixture of real and artificial.
Enver‘s remains were moved to the public cemetery in Kombinat in April 1992 from its location in the Martyrs’ Cemetery that looks down on the city of Tirana, in the north-west of the city, beside the road to Elbasin.
Even in its original setting the grave wasn’t ostentatious. It was a bigger piece of marble but the inscription was no different. What made it special was its location, the Martyr’s Cemetery being the place of honour for those who died in the fight against fascism during the Second World War. This was just a spiteful, political move by those opposed to Socialism as has been demonstrated by the installation of a pro-fascist monument to the right of the Mother Albania statue.
The original tomb stone was later used as the principle monument to the English military who died fighting in Albania during the Second World War. The English Cemetery is in Tirana Park just behind the main Tirana University Building.
Because the British had supplied the Communist Partisans with weapons after the victory over Nazism they thought they had the right to determine what should happen in Albania after liberation. British activities in the aftermath of the war continued until the fall of the Socialist system in 1990, beginning with the infamous ‘Corfu Incident’.
To read Enver Hoxha’s son’s (Ilir) account of the exhumation click here.