Volume 2, 2011
Avatars of Intellectuals under Communism
Socialist (Sur)Realism: Karel Teige, Ladislav Štoll and the Politics of Communist Culture in Czechoslovakia
This article focuses on the relationship between two Czech communist intellectuals whose ideas it attempts to situate in the broader history of twentieth-century Czechoslovakia: Karel Teige (1900-1951), a leading member of the European avant-garde; and Ladislav Štoll (1902-1981), a prominent journalist in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Standard historical accounts have used morally simplistic categories to create a stark opposition between Teige and Štoll: After the communist seizure of power in 1948, the former suffered intense repression for his heretical support of the avant-garde, whereas the latter became a leading architect of Zhdanovite socialist realism. The goal of this article, however, is to problematize such oppositions by focusing instead on the many intellectual and political commonalties both men shared. In doing so it undermines the Cold War myth of a communist monolith imposed from above that separated the ideologically loyal from those who refused to tow the official line. Drawing upon a range of archival and secondary sources, the article demonstrates that until 1950, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia never had a monolithic “line” on art and culture, making it anachronistic to impose concrete boundaries between “true believers” and intellectual “heretics.” To the contrary, Teige insisted throughout his life that his avant-garde aesthetics (which he based on French Surrealism and Russian Constructivism) were consistent with the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism. At the same time, Party functionaries such as Štoll largely tolerated, if not agreed with such opinions—despite how greatly such opinions deviated from the Soviet norm after 1937.