Socialist realism, Overland and the politics of representation

The publication of Jim Davidson’s biography of Overland’s Stephen Murray-Smith and Meanjin founder Clem Christesen provides an opportunity to re-examine the socialist realism with which Overland was once very much associated.

We might start by recognising that socialist realism appealed to progressives in post-war Australia because of a very contemporary preoccupation with representation.

At the time, the anaemic local publishing industry overwhelming produced books in which middle-class authors wrote about middle-class life for a middle-class readership. By contrast, socialist realism foregrounded the working class, the great majority of the population whose lives rarely featured in literature.

The Communist Party that Murray-Smith joined possessed a theoretical and organisational structure for literary production—including the Realist Writers groups, whose newsletter evolved into Overland. That apparatus enabled John Morrison to write about dock workers and gardeners; Judah Waten to describe Jewish immigrants; Dorothy Hewett to chronicle a textile factory; and Jean Devanny to novelise the cane fields of Queensland.


‘Role models are essential,’ writes Aisha Thomas in Representation Matters, a book of educational theory published earlier this year. ‘They help us become the person we want to be and inspire us to make a difference.’

The communist writers of the 1950s believed something similar. That’s why socialist realism centred on ‘positive heroes’—protagonists depicted as both typical and exemplary: a literature in which working class people could see themselves on the page would, the argument went, encourage rebellion.

Just as today, representation was meant to emerge from lived experience. Communist writers like the waterside worker Vic Williams claimed an aesthetic authority from their own circumstances—their work, they said, reflected the lives they saw around them.

Yet that posed obvious problems for a politically interventionist literature. What, exactly, did a ‘realistic’ portrayal of workers entail? How would realism induce revolutionary change by representing Australian workers who weren’t, by and large, revolutionary?

The Communist Party drew on Stalin’s literary commissar Andrei Zhdanov, who had decreed that writers should

know life, in order to depict truthfully in works of art, to depict it not scholastically, not lifelessly, not simply as “objective reality”, but to depict actuality in its revolutionary development.

The last phrase possessed special weight, allowing a distinction between a (good) realism and a (bad) naturalism, with, in practice, the former identifiable by the extent to which its depiction accorded with the party’s ideals.

On that basis, the CPA’s Jack Beasley explained that Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, a book that took years to research, did not ‘attain the level of socialist realism’ since:

…  the ‘hero’ of Power Without Glory is a degenerate person, as the author convincingly demonstrates. The working class enters the novel only indirectly, in relation to West and his ambitions … The book is blunted by the negative role allotted to the proletariat, for great literature could not be written of such a sorry ‘hero’ as West.

Almost by definition, the conception of representation as a spur for political change led to a constant and unresolved tension between the depiction of what was and what should be.

In another instance, Joan Clarke of the Sydney Realist Writers Group wrote to Murray Smith about Frank Hardy’s short story ‘Death of a Unionist’. The group’s objected, Clarke said, to Hardy’s characters on the basis they were not ‘typical’. The protagonist showed a ‘bad attitude’ to his wife and did not adhere to union discipline. Moreover, the story left unexplained whether economic or other reasons drove the main female character to abandon her baby.

Similarly, when Sally and Frank Bannister collaborated to write Tossed and Blown: The Story of a Rolling Stone for the party-led Australasian Book Society, they drew directly on Frank’s recollections of the Second World War. But lived experience did not protect them from their comrades’ ire.

‘It’s a false idea,’ CPA’s Len Fox wrote, ‘to show men squashing lice in a filthy jungle, or men involved in commercial rackets, and to say this is realism, this is progressive …’

If literary representation were to drive political change, it could not be defined simply in terms of veracity, since, in an oppressive society, veracity necessarily meant the reinscription of oppression.

After Fox’s interventions, the Communist Party paper Tribune ran multiple denunciations of the Bannisters, in a prolonged and very public cancellation. Its ferocity cannot be attributed merely to Stalinist authoritarianism. It stemmed also from the importance the party accorded to literature. Because communists believed that representation mattered, the excoriation of writers who did it badly became a matter of principle.

That was why party leader JB Miles urged Katharine Susannah Prichard to submit her manuscripts to the central committee for approval prior to publication. From his perspective, the offer was a generous one. The correct socialist realist representation of workers could not be derived from personal experience but arose, per Zhdanov, from ‘actuality in its revolutionary development’—and the derivation of that required the collective deliberation of leading cadre.

To use contemporary terminology, we might say that Miles did not want Prichard cancelled—and so offered to provide a sensitivity reading.


The formal tenets of socialist realism—klassovost (the artistic expression of the characteristics of class), partiinost (party spirit), narodnost (national style), and so forth—arose in the Soviet Union before being presented to communists and their fellow travellers the world over by Karl Radek, Maxim Gorky and Zhdanov at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934.

The Russian revolution had detonated an explosion of cultural creativity, a decade or more of experimentation, innovation and debate. The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy destroyed all that. In its place emerged a didactic and deliberately pedagogical aesthetic, designed to stabilise the social relations associated with the counter-revolution. Within Russia, literature functioned as a state-sponsored orthodoxy, with writers tasked with providing simple and understandable texts to acculturise both a newly proletarianised peasantry and the bureaucrats who ruled over them.

The theoretical foundations of socialist realism derived, not from the Soviet Union’s purported commitment to Marxism, but as a justification for Stalinist bureaucracy. Hence their vacuity.

‘In its cruder formulations,’ says Terry Eagleton in Marxism and Literary Criticism, ‘the idea that literature “reflects” reality is clearly inadequate. It suggests a passive, mechanistic relationship between literature and society, as though the work, like a mirror or photographic plate, merely inertly registered what was happening “other there”’.

The philosophical problems with ‘reflection theory’ illuminate socialist realism’s aesthetic weaknesses.

In the Soviet Union under Stalin, official literature evolved into what the critic Evgeny Dobrenko described as ‘a disaster of middlebrow taste’. The theories developed to justify Stalinist practices presented literature as an unproblematic mirror of reality—and so condemned the experimentation of modernism as degenerate (‘a heap of dung, crawling with worms,’ as Radek said of Joyce). The Australian writers who embraced socialist realist ideas of representation thus often also manifested the ‘stylelessness’ and ‘greyness’ that Dobrenko identified in their Soviet counterparts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union rendered the rhetoric of Zhdanov and his peers well-nigh incomprehensible. Yet the underlying assumptions of socialist realism—the naïve model of representation onto which the Stalinists grafted their doctrines—can be seen again and again in programs for for literary-political interventions.

For instance, in her 1985 book Sexual/textual politics, the feminist critic Toril Moi also polemicised against the mirror theory of representation, a model in which, she said:  

writing is seen as a more or less faithful reproduction of an external reality to which we all have equal and unbiassed access and which therefore enables us to critique the author on the grounds that he or she has created an incorrect model of the reality we somehow all know. Resolutely empiricist in its approach this view fails to consider the proposition that the real is not only something we construct but a controversial construct at that.  Literary works can and should of course be critiqued for having selected and shaped their fictional universe according to oppressive and objectively ideological assumptions, but that should not be consisted with failing to be ‘true to life’ or with not presenting an authentic experience of real experience. Such an insistence demand for authenticity not only reduces all literature to rather simplistic forms of autobiography, it also finds itself ruling the greater part of world literature out of bounds. … Extreme reflectionism simply cannot accommodate notions of formal and generic constraints on textual production since to acknowledge such constraints is equivalent to accepting the inherent impossibility of ever achieving a total reproduction of reality in fiction.

Moi’s argument covers the same ground as Eagleton’s. Yet, where he was addressing socialist realism, she was responding to what she calls the ‘Images of Women’ writing of the 1970s. Moi explains that the insistence of these feminists on ‘realism’ clashes

with another demand: that for the representation of female role-models in literature. The feminist reader of this period [ie the early 1970s] not only wants to see her own experiences mirrored in fiction, but strives to identify with strong, impressive female characters.

Cheri Register, in an essay published in 1975, succinctly sums up this demand: ‘A literary work should provide role-models, instill a positive sense of feminine identity by portraying women who are “self-actualizing, whose identities are not dependent on men”‘.  This might however clash with the demand for authenticity (quite a few women are ‘authentically’ weak and unimpressive); on this point Register is unambiguous: ‘It is important to note here that although female readers need literary models to emulate, characters should not be idealized beyond plausibility. The demand for authenticity supercedes all other requirements’.

Register’s choice of words here (‘should’, ‘demand’, ‘requirements’) reflects the strong normative (or prescriptive, as she prefers to call it) aspect of much of this early feminist criticism.

The ‘Images of Women’ critics downgrade literature they find lacking in ‘authenticity’ and ‘ real experience’ according to their own standards of what counts as ‘ real’. In case of doubt about the degree of authenticity in a work, Register recommends several tests: ‘One obvious check the reader might make on authenticity would be to compare the character’s life with the author’s’, she suggests. One may also use sociological data in order to check up on the social aspects of the author’s work …

It’s an extraordinary passage, not simply because of the parallels with the communist writers of the 1950s but because Moi might equally be describing the predominant conception of progressive writing in 2022.


To explain the revival of ‘extreme reflectionism’ we might think about the varied meanings of representation—and, in particular, the intersection between its artistic and political usages.

In Keywords, Raymond Williams notes how ‘represent’, a word initially used to mean ‘make present to the mind’, eventually came also to convey ‘standing for something that is not present’. In the political context, in particular, the distinction between the two senses matters a lot. A ‘representative’ can ‘make present’ those unable to attend a meeting by conveying their sentiments—but she can also act in their place, in a way that gives them no agency at all.

Depending on the setting, then, ‘representation’ can describe either inclusion or exclusion.

Since the 1980s, the marketisation of social life has eroded most of the mechanisms that once facilitated democratic participation, so much so that in, say, parliament, ‘representation’ functions almost entirely in its second sense. With political parties, trade unions and pressure groups reduced to hollow shells, citizens exert little direct influence on MPs, who fulfill their representative function as the substitute of a completely disempowered electorate.

In that context, the distance between politics and art narrows considerably—since a parliamentary party functions in much the same way as a movie or a TV show might. In both cases, we are reduced to passive consumers, signalling our preferences by choosing one product over another. Accordingly, politics feels less ‘political’ than culture, since stanning, say, a game franchise provides more representations to choose from than any political party could.

The identitarian ‘left’ has enthusiastically embraced this model of political representation, with disastrous results. For instance, in the United States, as Jacobin’s Craig Johnson explains, Democrats have long ‘sought diverse faces in high places to carry out an agenda that leaves the miserably unequal status quo untouched’. The assumption that this kind of representation offers an alternative to a program for structural change has, predictably, enabled the right to make significant inroads into the communities of the oppressed.

‘Donald Trump,’ says Johnson, ‘actually gained ground among minority voters during his reelection campaign, despite four years of racist fearmongering, political violence, and his alliance with the far right.’

Even more strikingly, in the recent midterm elections, Republicans ran the ‘most diverse GOP congressional delegation since Reconstruction’, with no fewer than sixty-seven non-white candidates standing.

You can see the same pattern across the world, as the right increasingly embraces its own version of diverse ‘representation’. Italy just elected its first female Prime Minister—and she’s a fascist. In Britain, the new PM boasts of being the only person of colour to ever occupy Downing Street, even as he embarks on austerity campaign that will immiserate the nation’s oppressed.

If radicals don’t offer a genuine political strategy for minorities, others will—and the results will be catastrophic.

In the context of literature, the problems for a ‘mirror-based’ politics of representation remain pretty much what they’ve always been. The insistence that writers should faithfully reflect the world leads to bad art, waving away questions about what representation entails and defaulting pragmatically to a crude realism.

At the same time, it also leads to bad politics, placing expectations on art that art can’t possibly fulfill.

In Bobbin Up, Dorothy Hewett wrote about the lives of workers organising in a textile mill. Her novel does many things, some of them quite important. But it would be entirely unfair to expect the book to prompt a strike wave: successful industrial organising depends on factors quite outside the remit of any novel.

The slogan ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ implies that, after recognising themselves in a ‘positive hero’, readers will be inspired to make change.  Reading doesn’t, however work like that—when, for instance, children identify with literary characters, they often fixate on those most unlike themselves, seeking from books not familiarity but estrangement.


Stalin described authors as ‘engineers of the human soul’, a sinister and authoritarian definition that activist writers, in particular, have too often embraced (Moi notes the censoriousness with which the ‘Images of Women’ critics responded to texts that didn’t live up to their expectations).  But writing, fortunately, less resembles engineering than it does alchemy: a mysterious process that’s never entirely under control and can’t be easily directed to specific political outcomes.

To put the argument another way, no book associated with the Communist Party exerted anything like the influence of Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory. But the novel’s agitational importance bore very little relationship to the issues Jack Beasley wanted to discuss. Despite lacking a positive hero, Power without Glory made such an impact because it became an organisational focus, with communists and fellow travellers surreptitiously printing and distributing the book, and then defending it against charges of criminal libel. As Hardy documents in his memoir, The Hard Way, In the course of the campaign to keep him out of jail he and his supporters spoke at:

meetings at mine pit-tops; outside factory gates; in ships’ mess rooms; in the lounge rooms of houses large and small, fashionable and plain; on the Sydney Domain and the Yarra Bank; on street corners while trams clatter by; in workers’ clubs; in small out of the way hall, in city and village.

Tens of thousands of people read and enjoyed Power without Glory. But its political impact depended, as you would expect, from activist organising in the real world.

That provides a basis on which we might reconsider the Communist Party’s whole literary project. To be blunt, socialist realism was a terrible theory. Nevertheless, writers influenced by it wrote some genuinely good books—think, for instance, of the stories of John Morrison.

How to explain that paradox?   

The Communist Party enabled would-be novelists to gather in the Realist Writers Groups. It supported the Australasian Book Society, a publication and distribution service, which, at its height, produced an astonishing third of all the new novels published in Australia. It maintained, in every city, bookstores carrying titles that mainstream shops would not cover. Most of all, it encouraged ordinary working-class people to read, talk and argue about books.

Even the debate about Tossed and Blown (as scarifying as it must have been for the authors) can be understood in terms of the party’s democratisation of literature. John Docker notes that:

[m]any ordinary members of the party felt they could join in these debates about the nature and function of literature. Certainly the opinions of leading members like J. B. Miles and J. D. Blake were featured prominently in Tribune, and as party leaders their attitude was to some degree disciplinarian … Yet, like the ‘ordinary’ party members, they felt confident as self-educated working-class people that they had the ability and right to discuss questions of typicality in ‘character’, of how novels should be constructed in realist terms, or to compare recent realism to the strengths and limitations of Lawson’s 1890s realism. Further, they felt that the Australasian Book Society was their society—that they had the right to read and discuss and criticise ABS books—that this right was not the exclusive privilege of specialised ‘literary critics’ (whom they’d probably never heard of).

The description gives a sense of how the CPA’s literary infrastructure achieved its results despite, rather than because, of socialist realism. The collectivity facilitated by a political organisation encouraged people excluded from mainstream culture and allowed them to develop into readers and writers.

That’s the kind of literary politics we need today.

The re-emergence of the ‘reflectionism’ decried by Toril Moi makes sense in an era which writing offers one of few opportunities to exert control over anything. When all politics centres on representation, literature becomes an obvious place for interventions. We can’t reshape society; we can, however, reshape a book, creating in its pages the ‘positive heroes’ that should be real but aren’t.

There’s nothing wrong with doing that but it’s not going to change the world—or, at least, not in the way its advocates think.

Representation matters—but, as the early years of Overland show, so too does participation.

It’s time to rethink both.


Image: Noel Cunihan, On Parliament Steps (1955)
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Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The reasoning, and its failure, relies on the use of the single term ‘representation’ for two things: 1) signification by texts, and 2) representation of social group X, in a realm of power, by person of social group X. In talking of the latter, you take only one aspect of it – how the existence of someone like Richi Sunak functions as essentially a character in the text, via media, of everyday life. You don’t consider the way in which, in this example, a British Asian Hindu PM, can represent the very general interests of British Asians in social life. Ie unless such a person is an absolute traitor to their community (far from impossible, but also, far from given), they will (or may) materially represent some forms of non-white social interest. Boris Johnson could still, and did, use a right wing notion of anglo-saxon whiteness as englishness, as part of his, and Brexiteers, rise to political success. That option, and a lot of other stuff, isn’t open to Sunak. You could also concede the possibility that on some issues – curriculum, community development, discrimination law etc – someone like Sunak is more likely to veer away from a standard Thatcherite position of whiteness, represented as colour-blind classical liberalism. If that eventuated (in any given case it may not), then the representation of social interests is real, and detaches from the consideration of the politics of the other sort of representation, signification.
    The willingness to conflate these two is a left aporia, which is costing it dearly. In the US, UK and France, blacks, Latinx, (Asian) Indian- and Arab- descended or first gen migrants are shifting towards right wing parties on cultural grounds. There is good reason for such groups to fight for material representation within actually existing social life, and seeing it as only a new form of signifying reflectionism is, in the last analysis, left whiteness.

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