Revolution is a festival of the oppressed and exploited, not a stage show put on for them by a party bureaucracy. When Socialist Realism had its opening night in 1934, Mikhail Bakhtin, an internally exiled critic, saw the festive energy of the masses reduced to the vicarious pathos of the spectator. But he also realized that the democracy which opposed this was not a matter of inviting the people to play a part in Western liberalism’s comedy of manners. The popular culture which he championed and theorized was a drama in which power was forced out of the wings and onto the stage where it could be displayed, mocked, contested and transformed. Bakhtin is perhaps the only major contributor to Marxist cultural theory for whom popular culture is the privileged bearer of democratic and progressive values. It is true that this faith in the people was anarchistic and utopian, and lacked the most rudimentary respect for political organization and strategy. Bakhtin stood in a tradition of Russian Populism which vividly demonstrated its political flaws throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. But this Populism was the forebear of Russian Marxism and an enemy of Russian liberalism. Even Marx was not immune to the tempting idea of a direct passage from peasant communitarianism to socialism. It is surely no accident, then, that Bakhtin’s commitment should provide us with a brilliant corpus of socialist cultural theory.

This theory grew and matured in the atmosphere of social change, intellectual polemic and artistic experimentation which pervaded the 1920s and early 1930s. Bakhtin extracted the radical kernel of a flourishing Russian modernism, tore off the mystifying shell of formalist aesthetics and art, and reminded this new practice of its social origins and purpose. The literary techniques which made language strange and self-conscious—parody, oral narrative styles, grotesque and fantasy, quasi-direct discourse, prose euphony and so forth—did so to foreground not language as linguistic material but language as the material of competing ideologies. These practices were instances of a kind of populist deconstruction he called dialogism. The dialogical work accepted that its production was an historical act: not the signification of a static reality by a lonely subject but an active discursive intervention conditioned by precise social and historical circumstances. The concept itself is meant to emphasize that the logic of discourse is neither grammatical nor borrowed from reality but is a logic of social interaction, in a metaphorical sense, a logic of dialogue. In a society driven by social struggle, however, this dialogue takes necessarily sharp forms, as the ceaseless unmasking of the authority of ruling discourse by the exposure of the social interests which put it into play. The popular culture he reconstructs for us appears shockingly modernist in its tactics: a tradition of parody, farce and plebeian laughter far removed from reactionary images of a pious, backward and stolid ‘folk’.

At a time when formalist trends in deconstruction which prevent the politicization of culture are dominating criticism, the rediscovery of Bakhtin has great import. Whereas in formalism the indeterminacies and conflicts within discourse are connected to a metaphysical flaw of language or Being, in Bakhtin’s work they are the necessary result and condition of the social development of language itself. What popular culture reveals in the ‘double-voicing’ of parody and buffoonery is not an internal limit on discourse but the fact that every utterance, if it is to be meaningful, must be connected with a speaker, an ideological situation, social interests and a social context. For any socialist convinced that there exist general or generalizable interests, this discovery cannot be politically neutral. It suggests a link between popular interests and deconstruction which could be used to transform literary critical techniques into material for cultural politics.

Born the son of a bank employee in 1895, Bakhtin’s earliest interests seem to have been philosophy and religion. In 1914 he went to Petrograd to continue his university education in the Classics Department, but although he lived at the nerve centre of the Revolution, his sense of the oncoming transformation was cast in religious and philosophical, rather than political terms. While living in provincial towns between 1918 and 1924 he became engaged in a series of study circles focusing on Neo-Kantian philosophy, and wrote his first important works. The most significant extant pieces from this period are a long philosophical essay on the relation of the author (creator) to the hero (creation) and a Kantian critique of Russian Formalism, which oppose individualism and positivism respectively.footnote1 From 1925–29 Bakhtin lived in Leningrad, worked at odd literary and teaching jobs and ‘went public’ with an extraordinary series of books and articles published in coordination with his friends V. N. Voloshinov and P. N. Medvedev.footnote2 In Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship philosophical concerns are transposed into the domains of psychology, linguistics and literary theory respectively.footnote3 They are Marxist only insofar as they theorize superstructural practices in a socially materialist fashion, leaving aside or treating perfunctorily the vexed relation to the base. In a peculiar marriage of epistemological and ethical argument, Formalist literary scholarship and formalist linguistics are attacked for their misapplication of positivist natural science to what are properly objects of interpretative textual inquiry, with the hint that it is an ethical error to treat other subjects and their works as objects, to reify living human activity.footnote4 In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, published in 1929, Bakhtin translates the opposition of forms of relation (social or objectifying) into an opposition of different discursive styles, the monological and the dialogical.footnote5 The dialogical relation of subject to subject is incarnated in the author–hero relations established by Dostoevsky’s revolutionary form of literary discourse. From this work until the study of Rabelais in 1940, what was cast in the Voloshinov and Medvedev texts as a opposition between theoretical accounts of the same object—language or literature—is increasingly set in terms of a practical opposition between forms of discourse.

Six months after the publication of his book on Dostoevsky Bakhtin was arrested in a round-up of the Leningrad intelligentsia, presumably for being involved in a religious study group, and was exiled to Kazakhstan for six years. In the 1934 essay ‘Discourse in the Novel’, dialogism, embodiment of the desirable form of ethical relations, becomes the activity of the people and is placed in opposition to a ruling-official monologism which enacts individualism and domination.footnote6 Throughout the essays of the 1930s and early 1940s the interest in dialogism as a subversive and realistic discursive form takes shape as a series of studies on the history and theory of the novel, the genre defined by its dialogism.footnote7 Bakhtin’s populism reaches its culminating point in his dissertation, completed in 1940 but published in 1965 as The Art of François Rabelais, which is organized around the cultural and political opposition of high and low.footnote8